The synchro national meet heads west

By Erin Shumlich

In 2006, the foundation was placed for the synchronized swimming team at the University of Calgary. Initially starting with three girls interested in continuing a sport they loved, the club has grown to be one of the most competitive in Canada.

From the moment of the team’s inception, the club’s founding president, Shannon Benson, has been pushing for a national meet to be held at the U of C — this is their year. For the first time in the league’s history, the meet will be held in Western Canada.

The U of C won the western meet on Jan. 21, hosted by the University of British Columbia. But for the U of C synchronized swimming team, their eyes are on one thing — the national title.

Donning western-style swimsuits that would make Woody from Toy Story proud, the girls flew through the air with incredible precision in preparation for the league’s national meet in Calgary. Cadillac Ranch is part of the team’s mashup song, mixed specially for the meet, bringing some home flavour to a routine that Benson said is faster and more technically difficult than in previous years.

“It is led by the coach — she is the one who has the overall vision, but when it comes to specific movements, we are the ones who are in the water and we have to feel good doing it. It has to look good on us,” said Benson. “It’s definitely a process of creation, like any art piece.”

Working with seven other girls to perfect the routine is challenging, especially when it comes to creating specific moves that work with everyone. The difficult process really pushes the team to come up with a cohesive piece.

“There is a lot of back and forth and a lot of give involved in coming up with the strongest quality product. As long as you are patient, it will come together if you keep practicing,” said Benson.

Synchronized swimming is geared towards an eight person team — last year, the girls competed with six and placed first in the western meet and fourth in nationals.

“It’s harder to be as artistic with only six people,” said Benson. “This year there are eight of us and we have a really strong team, so I am excited to see what we can do. The quality of the routine is a lot stronger than it was last year.”

The latest member of the team joined just before the winter break, giving her only a short period of time to learn the routine before the western meet, but for Alison McKenny, a second-year engineering student, it was a smooth transition. She has been synchronized swimming for 14 years and has trained extensively for national teams. Retiring from the sport in 2009 after her fourth place finish with the Canadian team in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, McKenny said the routine came easy to her and she is happy to be back.

“I wanted to get back in the water and be part of the team atmosphere,” said McKenny. “I missed the sport, but it’s a bit of a challenge to balance with school.”

The progression of the team since its inception has been immense and Benson said it has been wonderful to see the team develop and be a part of the process. The club initially was unable to get prime pool time at the university, so they practiced at the Talisman Centre for the first two years, but Benson said the back-and-forth became too much. After the team placed first in nationals in 2009, Benson said the university started to take the team seriously and give them pool time at the university, which was essential for the sustainability of the program.

“We did not want to stop swimming,” she said. “Long-term involvement in sport is so critical for health and well-being, but there wasn’t really an opportunity in the city for us to continue with a sport that we loved. We were the first team in years to be let into the domain of campus competitive clubs.”

Cari Din, who has been coaching the team for four years, said the team dynamic is an important part of life and the social aspect is a huge part of why the team does so well. Din started synchronized swimming in 1978 and has won a silver medal with the Canadian team in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. She said the sport has become more technically difficult since she was involved.

“One of the biggest things you get marks for will never change, which is how high you can keep yourself out of the water,” she said. “It’s a great place for a young woman to be. Growing up, it got me through high school to have a place to go with seven other girls. It’s like having another family.”

All 13 teams in eastern Canada and five teams in the west qualify for the national meet. Although it is a bit more financially difficult for teams to travel from the east, none have been deterred and there will be a full house in Calgary.

The teams will be judged on a 10-point system based on technical merit and artistic impression.

“For us, nationals is the most important meet. It’s what we have been working towards,” said Benson. “Our goal is to win. We are pretty firm on that.”

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