Olympic Champions Talk About “The Basics” of Synchronized Swimming

Sarah & Karen Josephson at the esynchro booth at the 2014 Age Group Nationals in Seattle.
ANA Synchro had the pleasure of talking to Olympians Karen & Sarah Josephson at Age Group Nationals this past July in Seattle, WA.  And it was clear that they are as passionate as ever about the sport of synchronized swimming, which took them all over the world as our country’s top duet, and which took them to the medal stand in not one, but two Olympic Games – gold in ’92/Barcelona and silver in ‘88/Seoul!
Today, the Josephson sisters, along with sports performance expert Duke Zielinski and long-time synchro official and philanthropist Carol Valles, are putting their talent, expertise, and energy into esynchro, an outstanding collection of printed and on-line resources for basic synchro training.  They have instructional videos and handbooks on safe and effective stretching techniques, figures, swimming strokes, and more.   
ANA Synchro:  At the start of our season in the fall, our coaches spend a lot of time on “basics,” like verticals, sculling, and eggbeatering.  What can you tell our athletes and their parents to help them get through this learning period, when they probably would prefer getting straight to the new routine or taking turns on top of lifts?
Sarah:  Everyone wants to do the cool stuff now!  But you have to swim first, and then you get to do the cool stuff.  It’ll make you better at the cool stuff!  Duke has a saying:  “Advanced techniques are nothing more than basic techniques performed to perfection.”  Once you learn how to do a back scull, for example, it doesn’t change when you get to an elite level.  You still do the same back scull.  You still do the same vertical scull.  So it’s really important to get those basics down.  The basic skills are one of the things I think we’ve lost in this country.
Karen:  To get successful in anything, you have to put the time in on the basic skills.  Life will be easier if you work on getting those basic skills really good.  It’s like learning to read.  You learn early, and then it’s a breeze.
ANA Synchro Coach gets in the water to help our youngest swimmers get comfortable with the basics of the sport.

ANA Synchro:  But it seems like the basic skills are all underwater, where judges aren’t looking. Does it really matter what happens underwater, as long as you can do the moves well above the water?

Sarah:  Yes, it matters.  For example, to me, there is a very efficient way of tucking underwater and getting to the surface quickly.  But when I watch the girls today, I see many girls just sprawling out of a position now, which slows them down.  And when they torpedo down the pool, they should be able to shoot out and travel down the pool very quickly.
Karen:  If someone doesn’t have good technique, they look like they’re just plowing through the water, and they’re not moving as far, or as fast, as they should.
Sarah:  Watch the Russian National team.  The strength and power of their kicks to move themselves down the pool are just so much more impressive than most of the rest of the world at this point.  That’s just basic swimming technique.
ANA Synchro coaches spend some practice time on stroke technique because the better swimmer you are, the better synchronized swimmer you'll be.

ANA Synchro:  Basic swimming technique?  Are we talking freestyle?  The common strokes?

Sarah:  Definitely. It’s swimming.  It might be synchronized swimming, but it’s still swimming.  I think we forget that sometimes.  The better swimmer you are, the better synchronized swimmer you’ll be.
Karen:  Back when we were competing, we spent a lot of time with Matt Biondi, and he spent a lot of time on technique.  He made sure every finger was right when he entered the water.  That’s why he could win.  His training to the technique was exactly precise.  And it’s the same in Synchro.  It really needs to be that precise.
ANA Synchro:  As you know, USA Synchro evaluates athletes on a specific set of skills, both land-based and water-based, to determine who will earn a spot on one of our national teams. For girls who aspire to that, should they focus on just those specific skills?
Karen:  We’re big on not just training one specific movement.   You have to train all around.  Sitting in a split, for example, doesn’t necessarily make your split better. You need to stretch out different ways. It’s not just the one exact movement. When you do just the one movement, that’s when you tend to get injured.  Because in Synchro, you are never just doing a straight leg lift.  You might be doing a leg left while swinging it around.  So you have to be all-around fit.  Synchro is really whole body fitness, not direct straight line moves.
ANA Synchro athletes get evaluated a couple times a year so they can know when they improve and what they still need to work on.

ANA Synchro:  Last year on our team, though, we started quarterly evaluations to measure how people are doing against particular skills.  Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

Sarah:  A good thing! Not every club does this, and I think they should.  In timed sports, you have a time, and you know if you get it or not.  In basketball, you know if you score a bunch of baskets.  It’s much more quantitative.  In Synchro, it’s not.  And there aren’t meets or competitions every weekend like other sports.  So evaluations give kids an easy way to set goals. They can see where they are at this point and what they need to do to get to the next level.  It gives them something to measure.  Still, at the end of the day, Synchro is a subjective, judged sport, but there are objective ways to judge it to improve upon the skills to get where you want to go.
ANA Synchro likes to kick off its season with a fun social activity.  This year's choice - a group trampoline event!

ANA Synchro:  What would you like to tell kids involved in this sport?

Sarah:  All the way it should be fun.  It’s an activity.  It doesn’t mean you can’t work hard, but it should be fun.  You should enjoy the challenges of working on things, learning new skills, and working with teammates.
ANA Synchro:  What would you like to tell parents whose kids are involved in this sport?
Karen:  Make sure there’s enjoyment and improvement.  Are they getting better?  Are they working toward goals?  Not just randomly working, which is sort of an easy thing to do in Synchro if you just start working on a routine without knowing if you got any better. And it’s quality of practice not quantity of hours.  More hours does not necessarily mean getting better.  It can just be exhausting the kids thoroughly.  And, if there are more hours, are they really working in the pool or just hanging out?  You can get a lot done in a few hours.
Synchronized swimming - a blend of athleticism, technical skills and artistry.

ANA Synchro:  Finally, tell us what you love about synchronized swimming.

Sarah:  I think it’s that balance between athleticism and the technical skills and the artistry. The choreography is just a way to show off your athletic and technical skills.  It’s the creative part with the technical part.  That balance is cool.
Check out eSynchro at their website:  www.esynchro.com