• New York Times

    Tuesday, May 26, 2009

    Sports

    RINGS; Synchronized Swimmers Looking for a Little Respect Close

    By CARLA BARANAUCKAS LYNN ZINSER

    Published: August 19, 2008

    If there is an Olympic sport that receives little respect from the average American fan, it is synchronized swimming. Bring up synchro, and the first thing many people mention is the spoof done by Harry Shearer and Martin Short on ''Saturday Night Live'' in the 1980s.

    But when the duet and team competitions in the sport that could be described as a combination of swimming, gymnastics and figure skating are televised this week, some women from a certain generation who grew up in certain parts of the country will be watching and remembering what for them was one of the few competitive sports for girls when they were in high school.

    Minnesota is one of those places, and Jeanne Pollard is one of those women. Pollard, the daughter of the basketball Hall of Famer Jim Pollard, discovered competitive synchronized swimming when her family moved to Edina, Minn., for her senior year of high school, 1967-68, years before Title IX brought girls' varsity sports into the school system.

    ''I probably would have been in track or cross-country or perhaps basketball,'' Pollard said, noting that her whole family was involved in athletics. ''My dad may have spent more time doing basketball with me.''

    Her father played for the Minneapolis Lakers from 1948 to 1956 and was an all-American on Stanford's N.C.A.A. championship team in 1942.

    With no tennis or volleyball or gymnastics available, Pollard tried out for what was offered -- synchronized swimming. Because it was run as a club sport, the season lasted throughout the school year, culminating in a state competition in the spring. And Pollard, who lives in Manteca, Calif., remembers it as a rigorous schedule.

    ''It was a very competitive swim team, and I remember we had two- and three-hour workouts,'' she said. ''It was as rigorous as basketball.''

    If Minnesota seems an unlikely place for synchronized swimming to flourish, tell that to 84-year-old Ruth Zink. A star of the Aqua Follies that were part of the annual Minneapolis Aquatennial celebration, Zink and some friends saw their first synchronized swimming competition in Chicago in 1953, she said.

    ''That inspired us, so we came back and started competitive synchronized swimming in Minnesota,'' said Zink, who coached in several school districts, including Stillwater, which remains a powerhouse in what is now a varsity sport.

    Rivalries were intense. ''I think the competition was fierce and we all wanted to win -- and we did,'' remembered Heidi Schellhas, who led the Edina team to the state championship in 1971.

    Schellhas, who said she is ''very much a sports enthusiast now'' and plays tennis, said that if other sports had been offered, she probably would have pursued them. Still, her years in synchronized swimming were very useful. ''I think we learned the kinds of things people learn from being involved in competitive team sports.''

    Edina's chief rival in those days was St. Louis Park, whose standout swimmer was Joanne Kutzler. While synchro was difficult enough in the 1960s, Kutzler said, ''I think the bar has been raised a lot since then.''

    Kutzler, who coaches the Minnesota Synchronettes and Carleton College's varsity team, said that the lifts and throws that had become part of the competition had complicated things. ''Synchronized swimming didn't used to be risky,'' she said. That is part of the reason Kutzler would like to see the sport get more respect. ''Synchronized swimming is more highly respected around the world than it is in the United States, where it started,'' she said.