Erin Wheeler is dancing against the resistance of the water, with no ground beneath her, and yet she delicately breaches the surface of the pool and slides back in unnoticed. Her teammates surround her. Every kick, lift and turn of the head is smooth and in unison. They perform as one entity.
It’s hard to believe, given their unison, that when last year’s synchronized swimming season began, head coach Asha Bandal was unsure there would be a team.
“In order to find a high school swimmer, someone who is interested enough to look at the school and then who will apply and who has the grades to get in and then who can afford the school, all the stars have to align,” Bandal said.
But luckily, there was one swimmer coming in who had experience with synchro – Wheeler.
“I told her what the situation was and that it was just her, and if she wanted to swim I would help her and we would try to get other girls to do it,” Bandal said. “But if she didn’t want to swim, we would just say this is the natural stopping point of the team.”
An underwater view of Wheeler performing a routine | Jess Dankenbring
But Wheeler said she wanted to continue her passion for synchro that began almost a decade earlier.
“There’s not that many college teams, and I want to help build up synchro,” Wheeler said. “My big goal is to help grow the Richmond team as much as I can in my four years here.”
Last year the team had only four swimmers, but now the team has grown to six swimmers who compete and four more who practice with the team.
“We’re really expanding," Wheeler said. "There seems to be more of a team dynamic. There are more girls and more personalities.”
Bandal said this was the first team she has had that has been dominated by novices. One of those novices is Taiyaba Ali, who was roommates with Wheeler last year.
“I didn’t even know how to swim before joining the synchronized swimming team,” Ali said. “Erin was the major force and the reason why I’m doing so well in synchronized swimming.”
Bandal said she originally thought that she would work with Wheeler individually because she swam at such an advanced level, but Wheeler preferred to be involved with her team.
“It’s very rare to find somebody who is at her level that would be willing to spend a lot of time working with beginners,” Bandal said. “It’s just so obvious how much Erin loves the sport and enjoys being in the water.”
Bandal doesn’t have assistant coaches to discuss moves and routines, so Wheeler has fulfilled that role as well, even helping teammates outside of practice when she can.
“There’s a lot of girls and just one coach so it’s kind of hard to make sure everyone is being watched all the time,” Wheeler said. “I do have to devote some of my time to helping the new girls learn skills, especially since a lot of them haven’t been swimming for a very long time.”
Her commitment to the sport and her team have helped Wheeler grow as a leader and swimmer during the last two seasons.
“She comes early to practice," Bandal said. "She stays late at practice. You can see when she’s working with the new girls she loves passing along her enthusiasm and knowledge of the sport.”
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