Synchronized Swimming: History Behind the Smiles

Promotional photo of Esther Williams performing underwater, circa 1944. Courtesy International Swimming Hall of Fame.

It happens every four years. The world’s best women synchronized swimmers enthrall Olympic audiences with their perfectly timed twists, turns, thrusts and flips. Where other sports, like swimming races, are perceived as athletic competitions, synchronized swimming retains an association with entertainment and pageantry.

Perhaps more than any other sport, women’s appearance matters as much as their athletic performance. While swimmers may practice with goggles and swim caps, during competitions most forgo such aids. Long-time synchronized swimmer, Yassi Jahanmir, explained that USA Synchro–the sport’s governing body in America–doesn’t formally forbid swimmers from wearing goggles and caps but, in synchro culture, serious swimmers regard them as amateurish. Perhaps this attitude stems from FINA’s official rules which permit swimmers to wear an unobtrusive nose clip but other equipment–like goggles or swim caps–are forbidden during the routine session of Olympic competition, unless required by medical reasons. As loose hair swirling in the water would obstruct visibility and get in the way, swimmers must coat their hair with unflavored gelatin to cement it in place. Would athletes in any other sport agree to this–while wearing a smile?

The association between synchronized swimming, pageantry and femininity harkens back to its inception. The modern sport evolved from underwater ballet which was performed in Europe in the 1890s. Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman whet America’s appetite for synchronized swimming when she began demonstrating swimming and diving techniques in a 14-foot aquatic tank at London’s Hippodrome (1906). Wild success in England led to vaudeville contracts in America. Because vaudeville still held associations with burlesque and the swimsuit Kellerman wore to perform was considered risque, she took great pains to exaggerate her femininity–respectably–in her swimming acts. Within six years, she transitioned to the silver screen, becoming one of the most popular silent film stars of her era. Because her films featured her swimming underwater or diving, the press dubbed her the “Million Dollar Mermaid.” The underwater ballet movements Kellerman performed in later films were direct precursors to synchronized swimming, but that term did not yet exist.

“Synchronized swimming” made its way into common parlance in 1938. The description was first used, reportedly, by American Olympic swimmer Norman Ross who earned three gold medals in the 1920 Games. Asked to comment on a group of women performing water acrobatics to music at the Century of Progress International Exposition in Chicago (1934), Ross remarked on the impressive “synchronized swimming” of the performers. The phrase stuck.

Broadway celebrity Billy Rose further promoted synchronized swim performances in his wildly popular “Aquacade” which was staged at the World’s Fair in 1939. Five million people flooded New York’s 11,000-seat marine amphitheatre to watch the dramatic performances that combined dancing, swimming and water acrobatics–the same elements of modern synchronized swimming–and featured former Olympians including Gertrude Ederle and Johnny Weissmuller.

Swimmers in Billy Rose’s Aquacade, Golden Gate International Exposition, Treasure Island, 1940. (San Francisco History Center, SF Public Library)

Based on its success in New York, in 1940 Billy Rose’s Aquacade opened in San Francisco where Rose discovered California swimmer Esther Williams. Winner of three national swim championships (breaststroke and freestyle) Williams had earned a place on the 1940 U.S. Olympic team. When WWII preempted the Games, Rose persuaded Williams to join his Aquacade and she shifted from athletic swimmer to celebrity swimmer.

Esther Williams posed underwater circa 1948. Courtesy International Swimming Hall of Fame.

After seeing Williams in the Aquacade, MGM signed her to star in a series of swimming movies. Audiences flocked to theaters to see popular films in which Williams performed breathtaking dives and underwater acrobatic scenes. In 1952, she played the lead in the elaborate biopic musical film about Annette Kellerman’s life, Million Dollar Mermaid. More than any other person, Williams deserves credit for popularizing modern synchronized swimming in America.

Like today’s synchronized swimmers, the acrobatic moves Williams performed underwater required rigorous training, agility, and advanced skill. When executing a dive from a 50-ft tower during the filming of Million Dollar Mermaid, Williams broke her neck. She remained in a body cast for over six months before completing the film. But the press habitually downplayed her athleticism and emphasized her svelte figure and beauty. Williams became a favorite pinup girl, further cementing the link between swimming, beauty, and pageantry.

Do the elements of pageantry–having to coat your hair with gelatin, wear cosmetics, and smile–make synchronized swimming any easier? Of course not. In fact, having to maintain an ear-to-ear smile while pumping leg muscles vigorously must present an added challenge. Yet most people subscribe, consciously or not, to the bias that because the swimmers are smiling and look attractive, they are performing not competing in a sport.  The Olympic Games provides an opportunity, every four years, to rethink perceptions of what constitutes sport. The 2008 documentary, Sync or Swim, by filmmaker Cheryl Furjanic addresses some of those concerns as it traces a group of young women swimmers competing for spots on the 2004 U.S. synchronized swim team.

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