Team Work

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L ast Saturday, Hamden High School’s swimming pool was brimming with monsters. Music from the soundtrack to The Nightmare Before Christmas blasted the humid air as four swimmers clawed and danced their way through the water, grimacing like ghouls and goblins. These are members of the Hamden Heronettes, a synchronized swimming team founded in 1970. And while the aquatic dance is fun to watch, it’s scary hard to perform.

“It’s very dynamic. You have to use a lot of different parts of your brain. It’s spatial, it’s got movement, and it’s got music. It’s very three-dimensional,” says head coach Anna Montgomery. “It’s… a real challenge. It’s never the same twice.” Montgomery herself was a Heronette, competing for eight years before she started coaching. “Synchronized swimming has always been a part of my life, which is fabulous,” she says.

In the swimming pool, the monster routine has ended and the more advanced group begins practicing a high-paced hip-hop routine. They twirl in the water, dip out of sight, then spring up in unison, arms pumping, water flying.

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Montgomery talks me through a few basic moves: there’s the back layout, where swimmers lay “completely straight” on the surface of the water while “sculling” with their hands to keep themselves still. Lift a leg perpendicular to the water, and you’ve got another pose: the ballet leg. Then there’s the vertical position, which Montgomery describes as “just simply straight up and down, but you’re upside down… you have to learn to move through the water upside down, and that’s really challenging.” While the moves take practice, Montgomery says the art is in the fluidity between poses: “the transitions between them can get really complex.”

More advanced sets include lifts, which mimic cheerleader pyramid formations, with one swimmer breaching suddenly the water, arms wide, while her teammates tread furiously beneath her. It’s impressive enough to witness before Montgomery reminds me that there’s no touching the floor or walls of the pool in synchronized swimming, meaning the bottom of the pyramid isn’t anchored. At competitive meets, there’s an underwater camera to confirm the athletes are relying on nothing save “the water, each other and themselves,” as Montgomery says.

One of only two synchronized swimming teams in Connecticut, the team is composed of swimmers from many towns and age groups. Three Heronette parents gathered poolside tell the story of how their daughters found their way to “synchro” through other, less satisfying activities. One was bored of swimming laps, another was turned off by the aggressive culture of soccer and a third was looking to have more fun than gymnastics could offer her. They all fell in love with synchronized swimming, which is a combination of many different athletic skill sets but, according to the diehards, is greater than the sum of its parts.

The Heronettes compete on the local level as well as nationally throughout the season, but now they’re also practicing for their annual water show, which they’ll perform on June 9 and 10. A tradition throughout the team’s 47-year history, the show used to be such a popular event that it had to be performed at Yale’s Kiphuth Exhibition Pool, which seats over 2,000 viewers. Joanne Hiscocks, the group’s marketing manager and unofficial historian, says past water shows made use of spectacular props, including a custom plexiglass form to give the impression of walking on water, as well as an above-pool swing. In the ’90s, Heronettes practiced in baggy t-shirts to create more drag in the water, and they performed not in today’s spangled swimsuits but rather in full dance costumes. Hiscocks says past members marvel at the heavy gear, telling her, “It’s amazing we didn’t drown.”

While the Heronettes have left some of their traditions behind, the team is still drawing from its wellspring. Before I leave, one of the swimmers, Grace O’Keefe, volunteers to demonstrate the Heronettes’ namesake move: the heron.

It’s an elegant, contained pose. She rolls slowly forward until she’s folded beneath the water’s surface. Then her legs leap from the water in an inverted flamingo posture, before gravity has its way. Her teammates cheer the demonstration as O’Keefe splashes back into formation.

Hamden Heronettes
Hamden High School – 2040 Dixwell Ave, Hamden (map)
hamdenheronettes@gmail.com
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Written and photographed by Sorrel Westbrook.

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Sorrel is a California transplant to New Haven. She studied English at Harvard and fiction at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She spends her free time among her house rabbits and houseplants, looking at maps of Death Valley. She loves New England for its red brick and rainstorms and will travel great distances in pursuit of lighthouses and loud music.

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