Olympic Endeavors – Synchronized Swimming

I continue my celebration of the Summer Olympics with Synchronized Swimming, which began on Sunday in London. I have never known anyone who participated in this sport and didn’t know much about it, which of course meant I had to try it. I now realize Synchronized Swimming requires a lot of strength, coordination and grace in addition to water-proof make-up and exaggerated smiles. I thought it would be difficult to find an organized “sychro” (as NBC seems to call it these days) program, but thankfully I was wrong. The Andover/North Andover (Mass.) YMCA has an extensive program for children ages 6 to 19. They currently have 80 team members.

The Y’s head coach and team director, Svetlana Malinovskaya, was kind enough to offer me a private lesson seeing that the team is made up of kids, and swimming with them may have seemed a little creepy. Svetlana was a member of the Belarus National Team from the ages of 15-24 before moving to the U.S., so I was in very capable hands.

I arrived, uncharacteristically late and a little flustered, quickly changed into the only one-piece bathing suit I own, threw on my brand new swim cap and goggles and scampered onto the pool deck. Svetlana let me borrow her nose clip – more about that later – and we jumped into the pool as little girls wearing big smiles did laps of the pool; but they were not swimming laps of the pool. They were vertical in the water with their heads bobbing just above the surface and they were moving at a pretty good pace. I wondered if I could be as good as these eight year olds. Maybe one day.

I am sculling underwater to spin myself around like a pinwheel

Svetlana and I started out with the basics: sculls. They are the hand movements synchronized swimmers use to propel them in different directions in the water. It’s all wrist action, tiny paddles under the water and the direction in which you move your hands dictates which direction you will float in. I did a layback (exactly what it sounds like, laying on your back at the surface of the water) and sculled in different directions. We then added a back somersault under the water. Svetlana explained this as if it was the next natural (and easy) step. For me, it was not. I could not get myself around. Svetlana said I could use my arms to power me around in a circle. That advice resulted in a wild flailing of my arms attempting to turn underwater.  I ended up floating to the surface, usually butt first. Despite my roly-poly nature in the water, Svetlana said I was a fast learner. Obviously, she was being very, very kind. I have to admit, despite appearances, my nose plug made things so much easier! I could struggle to somersault under water with relative respirational ease without water flooding my sinuses. I may buy one just to have.

We moved on to head stands up against the pool wall and some “cranes” (extending one leg straight in the air while in a back

Practicing headstands against the wall of the pool

layout position). Getting into this position was tough enough…but then you have to scull to move your body around in a circle or in a specific direction. It never occurred to me how much physics is involved with successful synchronized swimming. As Svetlana explained to me, our lungs, being filled with oxygen, are our natural flotation device.  For women especially, it’s the weight of our hips that make us sink. In order to have control and stay, for example, upside down in the water, perpendicular with the surface of the water, your hips and lungs must be right on top of each other on the same line, meaning you have to keep your body rigidly straight.

Graphic courtesy of isport.com

Next I learned one of the most important moves in synchronized swimming: the eggbeater, which is similar to treading water in that it keeps your head above the water, but you are not using your arms – they are forming elegant circles above the water.  During eggbeaters each leg is rotating around in a circle from the knee down, but each leg goes in a different direction, hence the name. As I struggled, the little girls on the synchro team were doing eggbeaters around me – this move is now second nature for them, but as a novice, it made me feel totally uncoordinated. It’s similar to trying to tap your head with one hand and rub your tummy with the other. I just couldn’t get the rotation right without concentrating really hard…but then I forgot to smile, which is very important in the sport. I could get my hands up in a V, but then I would slowly sink because my eggbeaters were not quite strong enough to keep me afloat. As my head slowly slipped into the water despite the thrashings of my lower body, both Svetlana and I started to giggle. Yes, a grown adult barely keeping her head above water – both literally and metaphorically – during a synchronized swimming lesson is a funny sight. I even caught some of the little experts trying to contain their laughter as they continued with their laps.

Before I tried Synchronized Swimming it seemed to be one of those sports that tends to be the butt of jokes, not to mention SNL skits. In some ways I chose to try it because I thought it would make for a ridiculously funny post. But the joke was on me. Not only is it quite difficult, I actually really enjoyed it. I even asked Svetlana if there was a program for adults. Sadly, there is not one in Andover, but she said Worcester has a “masters” program for adults…while I am far from being a master (I didn’t even get to point of synchronizing my new moves in time with another swimmer), I may be one day.

One thing Svetlana said really resonated with me. As I writhed under the water trying to do a backflip, and came up for air with a smile on my face, she remarked that she was surprised that I seemed to be having such a good time. I wasn’t getting outwardly frustrated, and usually adults struggle with wanting to be too good too fast. I told her that I used to be like that (and boy was I). I wanted and expected to be good at something right away, despite never trying it before. Now I can see that it’s rather arrogant to think that way. But trying all these new things for this blog, week after week, seems to have made me unafraid of being terrible at things.  I am more open to the unknown now, happily ready to try new things for the experience of it, not necessarily to excel them. My inhibitions have disappeared and where this Type-A girl once stood, amazingly, a fearless young woman now stands…or floats as the case may be.

eggbeating…and sinking…but still smiling

I can’t thank Svetlana Malinovskaya enough for taking time out of her buys day to spend a few hours in the pool with me. The Andover/North Andover has a great synchronized swimming program, and I encourage anyone with little girls to check it out. I was not compensated in any way for this post.

Olympic Endeavors – Taekwondo

I love the Olympics. I mean I really love the Olympics. I get goose bumps during the opening and closing ceremonies and I cry at the end of the produced pieces on the athletes’ background.  They have inevitably overcome some obstacle to reach the Olympics, and that inevitably cues the waterworks. To celebrate the 30th Olympiad I am launching several weeks of “Olympic Endeavors.”  I will challenge myself by trying different Olympic events. This week, the Korean martial art of Taekwondo.

“Have you taken martial arts before?” my instructor Peter asked me as we stepped onto the mat. I said no, still tugging on my uniform which I thought made me look like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. I had walked into Jae Hun Kim Taekwon-do Institute right across the street from Fenway with absolutely no experience, and at that moment I thought maybe I had made a mistake. But Peter quickly made me feel at ease. We warmed up with some stretches, with Peter counting in Korean. Then we started with some basic forms (punches and kicks).

Practicing my roundhouse kick

I think Peter could quickly tell that I was very inexperienced, and obviously had never been in a playground fist fight, because he had to tell me over and over again to keep my thumb outside my fist when I punch. We started with front kicks and jabs in the air, moved on to roundhouse kicks and blocks and eventually Peter grabbed some pads and I actually had to aim my limbs at something. I started kicking and punching, very worried that I would hurt Peter. Why did I think my newbie kicks would injure a black belt? I also managed to lose my balance several times mid-kick which left me flailing various arms or legs in the air.

Grand Master Jae Kim, who founded the institute 38 years ago, came over to give me a few pointers. Both he and Peter picked up on the fact that I was holding my breath while going through the series of kicks and punches. They both told me to relax. Was it that obvious, I wondered, that I am an up-tight perfectionist? I guess so. I took some deep breaths and just tried to absorb all the lessons being presented. Like so many of my past “adventures,” as soon as I stopped trying to be good at Taekwondo, I actually became good at Taekwondo! While I wasn’t getting nearly as much extension, speed or impact as Peter, my kicks and punches weren’t too shabby if I do say so myself.

Almost more interesting than actually doing Taekwondo is the history of the sport, its lightning fast trajectory on to the international stage and the fact that Jae Hun Kim Taekwon-do Institute is a destination for people from across the globe who know – and want to know — Taekwondo.

Taekwondo is relatively new as sports go. It was created in 1955, but is based on martial art traditions that go back centuries. According to Mr. Kim, the sport spread around the world after soldiers who fought in the Korean War noticed how “tough” the Korean soldiers were and realized that Taekwon-do was an important part of their physical fitness routine. Taekwondo became an Olympic sport in 2000; meaning it only took the martial art 45 years to go from its infancy to biggest international sporting stage there is. Twelve years later, 128 athletes will compete in eight weight classifications (four for men, four for women) in these London games.

…It took a lot of practice

In addition to learning “forms” or “patterns” (the individual moves that I learned with Peter), The Jae Hun Kim Taekwon-do Institute offers instruction in the full spectrum of sparring (when you use those forms against an opponent). There are several sparring styles — all with different rules – including the type featured in the Olympics. There is also so-called “Full Range Sparring” which utilizes striking as well as grappling techniques. This type of sparring has become so popular that when my instructor, Peter, visited Korea last year everyone wanted him to teach them what they referred to as “Boston Style Sparring.” This anything-goes style originated at Mr. Kim’s studio in Fenway and helped it earn the honor of being named the top Taekwondo center in the world in 2009. Mr. Kim now has 15 centers all across the globe, and he teaches classes daily at the Boston location.

After going through the forms with Peter I watched other students in their classes and even got to watch some Olympic style sparring. It is intense. I could recognize some of the kicks and punches I learned in their movements, but barely. I really enjoyed my day of Taekwondo, but I had even more fun learning about the sport itself, its origins and how far it has come in such a short time. I think I may even go back for some group classes.

Photo courtesy of NBC Sports

While I did receive a complementary introductory lesson, I was not compensated in any other way for this post. Many thanks to Mr. Kim, Mr. Smith, Peter, Christine and Jen at Jae Hun Kim Taekwon-do Institute. Fellow Bostonians, we have a really amazing martial arts resource nestled right next to Fenway. If you are at all interested in Taekwondo I highly recommend you check it out. Olympic Taekwondo competitions start on August 8th, tune in. I will be!