It has been 16 years since the University of Richmond had a varsity synchronized swimming program, but that has not stopped the team from competing at the highest level. UR synchro has been able to keep pace with varsity teams and outperform club powerhouses, thanks to dedicated coaches and enthusiastic swimmers.
On March 21, eight Richmond students and two alumni arrived at the U.S. Collegiate Synchronized Swimming Championship, held at Ohio State University. The championship was the culmination of months of hard work, hours in the pool training and more hours choreographing and practicing.
All that work paid off.
Richmond entered the weekend as one of the smallest schools in competition, and left in ninth place for the entire nation.
"Synchro" is a complicated sport. There are costumes, girls wear makeup and some routines are set to music. It is also technical and challenging.
There are eight total events — four figure groups and four routines.
The four routine groups are solos, duets, trios and teams. Performances are judged on choreography, technical skill and overall aesthetic presentation.
The figure groups are different. They are more like figure skating, but in a pool. The field is split into A, B, C, and D groups. Each group performs a particular move, with A being the hardest. The swimmers are then evaluated on their technical skill.
Points are awarded based on performance in each category and then the sum of those points dictate what place your school gets. Richmond finished with 21.5 points, behind the University of Minnesota.
Asha Bandal is the UR club synchronized swimming team’s coach. She graduated from Westhampton College in 2004 and was recruited to swim on the last varsity Synchronized Swimming team in Richmond’s history. The program ran from 1981-2001.
It is through her efforts that synchro has survived at Richmond in the years since. Bandal handles the coaching, recruiting, choreography and any other issues that arise over a season. Helping her is another Westhampton alumna, Caroline Weist, a Richmond professor.
“Just having two coaches that are at every practice and are committed, it’s been really great for the team just to have that consistency. We didn’t have a set coach after our program got cut,” Bandal said.
The team includes some girls who swam in high school, but consists of mostly novices.
“Girls we recruit swam, did dance, did diving or gymnastics in high school and those skills lend themselves to synchro,” Bandal said.
Team captain and club president, Erin Wheeler is a junior who did synchro in high school and wanted to continue in college. The problem was that when Erin got to Richmond, she was the only girl on the team.
“It was scary, I didn’t know what was going to happen. Asha asked if I wanted to keep going and after thinking for a little bit I decided I wanted to try to start a team.” Wheeler said.
Since Wheeler started, the team has grown. Her freshman year, two girls competed in the championship, sophomore year, four and this year, eight girls made the trip.
Bandal does her best to recruit out of high school, but recruiting for a club level team is challenging. High school athletes sign up with the USA Synchro office, and Bandal contacts all of them to arrange visits. She says that several come each year.
“We have zero pull with admissions, so girls have to get in, and if they don’t get the financial aid they need, they can’t come.” Bandal said.
That is why most of the 11 girls on the team have never tried synchro before they go to their first practice. This makes their success even more impressive.
Competing is only half the appeal though. As Wheeler says, synchro is a small world, she looks forward to nationals to see her old friends as much as she does for the tournament itself.
“All the girls are really supportive and we are all really tight, especially with the William and Mary girls.” Wheeler said.
She wants to grow the sport and introduce it to more people.
“It’s like dancing in the water, if you like music and you like swimming, it’s a good sport to try,” Wheeler said.
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