We Got a Lesson From a Synchronized Swimmer and It Was HARD

Vicki Valosik’s new book is about the deceptively difficult sport.

Vicki Valosikand some of her teammates. Photograph by Scott Suchman .

Prior to my synchronized-­swimming lesson, I’d imagined something serene: delicate flapping of arms, elegant surface glides, a single leg raised in the air. Then I hopped into the pool at the Silver Spring YMCA. I was there with Vicki Valosik, author of the new book Swimming Pretty: The Untold Story of Women in Water. By day, she does editorial work for Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. (She’s also written for Washingtonian.) But for 14 years, she’s been an amateur synchronized swimmer as well, and she agreed to teach me the basics. That turned out to involve such feats as suspending myself upside down underwater with my feet spinning above the surface.

I should have known it would be tough. From the very first page of Valosik’s book, she outlines the tension in synchronized swimming between “beauty and strength, aesthetics and athleticism”—the mandate for women in the sport to “present their physical power with poise.” And there I was, a person without much power or poise, trying and failing to coax the more buoyant half of my body to float below the less buoyant half, which I was told was merely a precursor to the actual moves that synchronized swimmers must do.

Valosik, a petite woman in her forties with a Rosie the Riveter swim cap, remained encouraging. “I glimpsed a foot!” she cried when I inelegantly tried to walk one leg over the other with my torso submerged. According to her, my struggle was normal; the sport is deceptively hard. In synchronized swimming, she explained, “the effort is hidden beneath the surface. The sweat is hidden by the water.” Still, I nearly gave up. While I was spinning underwater, my nose clip failed, shooting chlorinated water straight into my brain. Disoriented, I tried to rise to the surface. I had to cling to the wall for a moment and breathe.

In 2010, when Valosik first tried synchronized swimming, she took to it quickly. As a child in Nashville, she’d been a dancer, and she’d met her college PE requirement by swimming, so the sport combined a couple of skills she already had. To push herself, she joined the DC Synchromasters, the region’s only competitive synchronized-swimming team for adults. She’s one of around 20 members, local women from their twenties to their eighties who travel all over North America to compete.

With Swimming Pretty, Valosik set out to tell the origin story of synchronized swimming. Initially, she assumed that it began with Esther Williams, the competitive swimmer who became a star of 1940s Hollywood “aquamusicals.” But the history turned out to be much more complex, with ties to the feminist movement and the development of physical education and aquatic lifesaving programs. “These threads—the more I pulled on them, the more they kept coming,” she said. “There’s no way to tell the story of [synchronized swimming] without it being a history of women’s swimming more broadly.”

It’s been 40 years since synchronized swimming became an Olympic sport, yet some people still dismiss it as pageantry. I can tell you now that it isn’t. For most of my lesson, I struggled to swim with any elegance or control. I did not look like Esther Williams, and I did not feel like a mermaid. But near the end, I did come to understand its beauty. I was underwater, upside down, with my feet poking out into the air. Below the surface, the world was peaceful and bright, the sunset refracting around the blue tiles. I was suspended there, hanging, until finally I felt calm enough to spin—to scoop water with my hands to make my body twirl. It was exhilarating.

This article appears in the June 2024 issue of Washingtonian.

Sylvie McNamara
Staff Writer