August 3, 1996
Swimmers water babes
By CHRISTIE BLATCHFORD -- Toronto Sun
ATLANTA -- Canada's synchronized swimmers are fine, smart, articulate young women, as thoughtful a group of athletes as there is.
They revel in the magic of team, of the selflessness learned there. Sylvie Frechette, Janice Bremner, and the most engaging Cari Read all spoke of this last night. Even the baby of the squad, 16-year-old Valerie Hould-Marchand, talked of her love for the nine women who were her role models and are now her friends.
They are also patriots, fiercely proud of the original music, Canada Gold, to which they swam. It incorporates strains of the national anthem, and the message they wanted to send, as Etobicoke's Erin Woodley said so well, was of "the unity within our team, the unity within our country, and ultimately, the unity within the world." When no one was looking last night, after the Americans had won gold and the Canadians knew they wouldn't be hearing O Canada, the young women from Quebec and Calgary and Vancouver huddled privately, and sang it by themselves, in French and English.
So make no mistake: They're great.
Why they fill me with despair is the mystery, and it's not much of one, really.
What they do is physically demanding. The American writer Dave Barry, I believe during the Barcelona Olympics, had great sport with synchro, and found himself, back home, being invited to try it; he pronounced it arduous, a verdict I'm prepared to accept.
That said, it strikes me that the physicality of the sport is completely subordinate to the ornamental. Synchro is ... decorative. The competitors have to have nice toenails, buffed feet, even tans, one as deep as the next woman's. They wear pounds of makeup. Part of their preparation must include, given the high-cut suits they wear and the many open-legged moves they make, a stripper's bikini wax or pubic shave. If anyone ever bothered to take a synchro swimmer to doping control after an event, what could the test possibly reveal? Traces of Estee Lauder? Unnaturally high levels of NutraSweet?
The swimmers are in splendid shape, the routines clearly difficult, yet they're presented as though they are not. There were eight teams in last night's final. Almost all of them used music that was somehow churchy, lots of pealing bells and ominous-sounding overtures, yet throughout the performances, to a woman, the swimmers smiled those dreadful smiles. Why? Why else if not to be saying, "Hey, this is easy."
Ultimately, they reminded me of bridesmaids in a wedding party, all dolled up in gear they couldn't possibly wear anywhere else in the world, all dressed exactly the same and somehow diminished for it, over-madeup and over-sequined, reduced by evening's end to scrabbling for the bride's bouquet.
This late-night scene at weddings always leaves me depressed, I suspect for the same reason that synchronized swimming, when it isn't making me howl with laughter (as in, for instance, the "pre-swim," as it's called, wherein a team swims a routine as a "warmup" for the judges), in the end makes me sad.
I want women to have bigger dreams than this, want more for themselves than approbation for merely looking great, for performing a feat that is demanding and complicated and making it appear simple. My mother's generation used to do that with meals, whip up seven-course gourmet feasts that were four days in the making and then brush away praise with a modest, "It was nothing." My generation did it in school, where the smart girls who studied hard would pretend it had all come naturally.
Now this. Now there are 16-year-olds who aspire to wear noseplugs, pose like statues on the prow of a boat, line themselves up on a pool deck by height, spread their legs in the water in ways which, were they willing to do it on land and with not much less on, would earn them a Girls of Canada feature in Playboy.
I suppose, in the end, that what synchronized swimming does is speak to the limited ambition of so many young women. Of course, it's nice to want marriage and family, but ought it to be a goal? Of course it's good to want to be athletic and be part of a team, but why such a tricky, gimmicky game?
The difference between, say, softball or soccer (two new Olympic sports for women this year) and synchronized swimming is the difference between buying a painting because it moves you and buying it because it matches the couch. The first is about passion; the second, decorating.
Synchro swimmers get marks in two categories, technical and artistic. I kept score last night, and by the end, was abbreviating the two sets of marks this way: T and A. Fitting.