Swimming in synch

Author Vicki Valosik probes the push and pull of art and athletics in a compelling cultural history of women in water

Synchronized swimmers in water

Credit: Kim Salt

In the early 20th century, most Western women still bound their cores in corsets. Not so with Annette Kellerman, the record-setting Australian swimmer who told a crowd of New York City socialites in 1909: "Just do some sit-ups instead!" Kellerman's physique, chiseled by years of endurance swimming, was a case in point. To demonstrate, she tore off her dress, declaring, "The only bones about me, girls, are the ones that nature gave me."

This snippet from Kellerman's life is part of the engrossing cultural history culled by author Vicki Valosik, A&S '13 (MA), in her debut book, Swimming Pretty: The Untold Story of Women in Water (W. W. Norton & Co., June 2024). A product of more than a decade of research, Swimming Pretty unearths the history of female swimmers such as Kellerman, whose athleticism was altered by society's view of women as passive bystanders, better suited for performances as mermaids and maidens than as competitors in sporting events. "The world of sport had relegated [women] to half-time shows at swimming galas, pushed them out of endurance swimming, and excluded them completely from races and competitions," Valosik writes. "But in the world of show business—where talent determines who gets to play—women swimmers would … collectively push against restrictive ideas about their sex and open new spheres of opportunity."

"The world of sport had relegated [women] to half-time shows at swimming galas, pushed them out of endurance swimming, and excluded them completely from races and competitions."
Vicki Valosik

Valosik's book starts with the bathhouses of ancient Greece and Rome, where regular dips in water replenished both women and men. From there, it touches on the fear of swimming fueled by Christian theology in the Western medieval and Renaissance periods, followed by the eventual embrace of it by Enlightenment-era thinkers like Benjamin Franklin.

For Franklin, "an observational scientist who harbored a lifelong fascination with water, there was no better way to learn than to just get in and experiment," Valosik writes. But the founding father didn't only splash around—he practiced and perfected the aquatic tricks he discovered during childhood from The Art of Swimming, a translated version of a 16th-century book published in Latin. From the book, Franklin learned to "bob [in water] like a spinning top with his knees held tightly to his chest, [dive] under and above the surface like a porpoise, … and swim on his back, arms free to ferry dry clothes or declarations and treaties high above the water," Valosik writes. Moves like this, she argues, became precursors to the water ballets and synchronized swimming shows that soared in popularity during the Victorian era and beyond.

Swimming Pretty focuses on these time periods, bringing to life Lurline the Water Queen's dazzling performances in aqua tanks during the late 19th century, Kellerman's leading roles in the vaudeville theater and silent films of the early 20th century, and Esther Williams' evolution from champion swimmer to Hollywood star throughout the mid-20th century. Taken together, their work served as steppingstones on the path to including women in swim competitions, allowing women to wear swimsuits on beaches and at pools—and in 1984, elevating synchronized swimming from a sideshow to an Olympic sport.

To write Swimming Pretty, Valosik pored over archives at the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Florida, consulted experts at the Harvard Theatre Collection and Ringling's Circus Museum, and interviewed women "from the very first competitive groups all the way up through current national team members, coaches, and elite athletes," the author says.

But she didn't only learn through research. Valosik took up the performance-based sport in her early 30s, when a boss nudged her to try a local synchronized swimming class. "My boss at the time was a figure skater just for fun and understood how much a 'passion hobby' could add to life," explains Valosik, an editorial director and writing instructor at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service.

Valosik didn't know what to expect when she showed up for her first class. "In my head, I saw only stereotypes and Esther Williams," she says of the swimmer who won three gold medals at the U.S. national freestyle champion ship in 1939, a victory that sealed her spot at the 1940 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. But the onset of World War II prevented the Olympics from happening. With her dream shattered, Williams shifted to a career as a performer, starring first in aqua shows and later in water-themed movies like Million Dollar Mermaid and Dangerous When Wet. Audiences lined up to see the champion swimmer lounge around a lagoon or swan dive into a pool wearing a sequined bathing suit, and soldiers put pinups of Williams in their barracks. "This wasn't exactly the competitive swimming career she trained for and imagined," Valosik says.

Like Williams, Valosik would soon find out the level of exertion involved in performance-based swimming. On her first day of class, a welcoming group of women ranging in age from their 20s to their 70s offered to teach her the basics. But the work of the class—the time spent moving in water—proved difficult. "On TV, the elegant [artist-athletes] make synchronized swimming look easy, but it's not," Valosik says. "You have to maneuver your body in unusual ways and use strength to stay in position, while holding your breath underwater in spurts of about 10 seconds before coming up for air. Every time you go under, it gets harder because your heart rate and carbon dioxide [levels] get higher."

Despite the difficulties, Valosik noticed benefits and stuck with it. "The full-body cardio and strength workout totally transformed my body," she says. She lost weight, built muscle, and found herself in better shape than ever.

At the 2024 Paris Olympics, synchronized swimming teams from around the world will compete for the 11th time. But the sport, rebranded as artistic swimming in 2017, has come to involve high-risk stunts, tighter formations, faster movements, and longer durations underwater. "The Olympic motto 'Faster, Higher, Stronger' perfectly encapsulates the ways synchronized swimming … has evolved during the 21st century," Valosik writes. The changes have led to injuries: concussions from getting kicked underwater or landing on a teammate after being tossed—and even hypoxic blackout, a potentially fatal condition that occurs when the brain is starved for oxygen.

Although Valosik admits to finding the new form of water performance fun to watch, she plans to stick with the milder (yet still strenuous) form of the sport, finding "plenty of challenge in making something difficult look graceful," she says. And herein lie the dichotomies explored by Valosik throughout her book, as the author probes the push and pull between beauty and strength, art and athletics, and performance and sport. Synchronized swimming, she contends, encompasses them all.