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The most vilified of Olympic events will likely draw its future luminaries from the pool of competitors that floated into Northern Virginia last week, when Oak Marr RECenter hosted the 1996 U.S. Junior Olympic Synchronized Swimming Championships. Even before arriving, the 350-odd participants had all long tired of outsiders’ insinuations that their Broadway tunes, nose plugs, and hair gel belong in some Water World sideshow, not the Olympics. On balance, they were a more defensive bunch than Dream Team III.

“We get an extremely bad rap, from everybody,” groaned Samantha Levin, a member of the Northern Virginia Nereids synchro team. “People don’t get it.” Levin’s words were complemented by a hold-your-breath-for-60-seconds-while-doing-high-impact-aerobics glare, something that all synchros master as surely as the egg-beater leg kick.

Organizers of the Fairfax meet displayed a similar degree of oversensitivity about the image of their favorite pastime. “Of course we deserve to be in the Olympics,” said Ike Eytchison, a Silver Spring resident and vice president of Synchro Swimming USA, the national governing body that sponsored the competition. “But everybody picks on us, pans us.”

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In fairness to those athletic purists (read “guys”) who are responsible for the bulk of the grumbling, it’s not hard to understand why the Olympic canonization of synchronized swimming would make waves. After all, this sport/distraction grew out of performances of “underwater ballet” in New York the early 1900s and Esther Williams’ WWII-era work for MGM Studios. And even its staunchest supporters admit that without Title IX—a federal decree that forced public education institutions to balance out the spending on male and female athletic programs—synchronized swimming would never have broken the surface. So, when synchronized swimming became an Olympic event at the 1984 Los Angeles games, it became an easy and obvious target for disparagement.

Among the earliest and most stinging abuse came from Saturday Night Live’s faux documentary of a duets team of Harry Shearer and Martin Short. In the piece, Shearer voiced his hopes for Olympic glory over footage of his scrawny-shouldered teammate, in a bath cap and a life preserver, pretending to row a boat. (The concept of a male synchronized swimmer going for an Olympic berth was comically implausible at that time, but Bill May, a teenager now swimming for a Santa Clara, Calif., squad, is being groomed to be the next big thing.) The spoof appeared back when SNL had some clout, so maybe it’s not surprising that real-life Olympic officials subsequently eliminated the duets and singles competitions, leaving only team events on the Atlanta games’ docket.

The amendments didn’t stop the carping. Nor did they chasten the participants; earlier this summer, the French Olympic team got in trouble for its plan to deliver a wondrously naive interpretation of life in the Nazi death camps, complete with all-black swimsuits, goose steps, and Schindler’s List music, during its Atlanta presentation.

And while the centennial games were taking place, talking heads and scribes from around the globe weighed in yet again against synchronized swimming’s inclusion in the Olympics. Of all those in Atlanta for the games, only security guard Richard Jewel was slandered more than synchros.

But even with the negative spin suggesting that the activity has more in common with Michael Jackson than Michael Johnson, synchronized swimming somehow retains a healthy fan base. The two days of synchro competitions in Atlanta were sellouts, and NBC brass gave synchronized swimming a much bigger broadcast window than such traditional Olympic events as boxing and weightlifting. Perhaps most important to Synchro Swimming USA: Americans won all the gold medals at the Atlanta Games, providing younger synchros with a new batch of idols.

“[Gold medalist] Becky Dyroen-Lancer is my hero,” gushed Levin. “She’s beautiful, and she’s just so good. She’s always awesome!”

Though neither Dyroen-Lancer nor any other recent Olympians showed up to scout their eventual replacements, the stands at Oak Marr were nevertheless packed for the Saturday-night sessions, when the finals for the oldest age brackets (16-17 and 18-19 years old) were held. The same potpourri of pseudo-athletic pomp and calibrated circumstance that fans of synchronized swimming love—and detractors hate—was on full display. A six-girl team from Arizona, for example, wore 1940s-type swim trunks and gaudy faux-diamond rings while cavorting to a medley of Marilyn Monroe tunes. And hometown faves the Nereids sported one-piece suits with “Coca-Cola” emblazoned across their chests, and splashed in time to music from, bizarrely enough, commercials for the soft-drink king.

“We paid for the suits ourselves. Nobody gave them to us,” Levin said, again playing defense.

As things turned out, the pro-Coke routine wasn’t enough for the Nereids to overcome the penalty the team was assessed for swimming one woman short: Katie Slye was lost to a hip injury earlier in the week, leaving no time for an understudy to take her place in the pool. Since the judges bestowed the Nereids’ performance with the exact same score given the L.A. team’s, the half-point deduction proved to be the difference between the gold and silver medals.

Levin, a recent graduate of West Springfield High School, will enroll at the University of Richmond this fall. She chose the school because of its well-regarded synchro program. Teammate Nikki Matthews, a Langley grad, selected Mary Washington College for the same reason. The Junior Olympics marked the last time the two will swim with the Nereids. And unless they end up as real Olympians some day, Levin and Matthews may never formally swim together again.

A coveted Olympic berth is a long shot, but the friends confessed to harboring a dream of synchronized swimming on behalf of their country someday. Time, if nothing else, is still on their side: While female gymnasts peak before they hit puberty, the synchronized swimmers on this year’s Olympic team were all at least 23 years old.

The finality of the event and the closeness of the competition seemed to hit Matthews the hardest. As she got out of the water after her last swim, she sat by the pool and began crying. Several teammates tried to console her, but Matthews kept gushing the very same sort of tears that so many sprinters, weightlifters, and wrestlers had shed in Atlanta just a week earlier.—Dave McKenna