By Tom Rohrer
In the sport of synchronized swimming, versatility is the key.
Along with the obvious necessity to have strong swimming skills, participants must have endurance, a flare for the dramatic and the poise to look composed for four minutes – all while not touching the bottom of the pool.
Like figure skating and gymnastics, synchronized swimming scoring relies on a judge panel that observes the routine. Participants can perform as individual, with a partner, or as a team.
Few know the ins and outs of the sport better than Tori Johnson and her daughter Jackie Barratt. Together, the mother and daughter coaching tandem oversees the Olympia Synchro Club, with Barratt recently taking over the head of operations title from her mother.
After performing at a few shows throughout the 80s, the club, according to Johnson, hit the restart button in the early 1990s. That restart has certainly worked, as the club has had at least one athlete attend the USA Synchro Age Group National event since 1994.
With novice, intermediate and advanced groups for elementary to high school aged students and a master’s program for adults over 20, the Olympia Synchro Club is an appropriate team for a lifetime sport.
“(The masters) like the camaraderie and social aspect and fitness,” said Johnson. “And that’s usually how it starts for our youth program. The kids join the club (novice team), then they want to stick with friends, go to competitions together. It’s all about fun, fitness and friends.”
“It’s a lifelong sport because it’s not jarring on the joints and you can still get a workout,” said Barratt. “We’ve had kids come from gymnastics and other sports where they couldn’t even compete anymore (due to injuries).”
Both Johnson and Barratt are lifelong synchro swimmers and both were coached by their mother.
Johnson can remember sitting in the shallow end of the Olympia Downtown YMCA branch pool, where the Olympia Synchro Club meets and practices, as a six year old. Later she would participate in a similar program, run by the YWCA and then the Lacey Parks and Recreation Department. Johnson began working for the Y in 1981, and suggested the idea of teaching and coaching a synchronized swimming team.
Eventually she would coach her daughter Jackie, who would also compete through the ranks of the sport (including trips to nationals) and see the changes of synchronized swimming first hand.
“The sport is always developing, always moving on to new things,” said Barratt. “When we would compete in Seattle, we would see teams moving faster, have new moves, beautiful suits. I remember thinking, ‘let’s do that.'”
Now the choreographer and head coach of the entire program, Barratt is able to mentor some standouts herself.
Recently, a duet pair on the advanced youth pair team competed in the Age Group Nationals in Riverside, Calif.
After winning the duet competition at regionals in Portland, Olympia High School incoming senior Hannah Garcia and North Thurston High School sophomore Maia Pontarolo-Reid went on to nationals as the only two representatives from the Olympia Synchro Club in 2013. The duet competition is judged on the teammate’s ability to be perfectly in synch with one another in every area, including facial expressions and arm extensions among many other types of movement. The two teammates, who are also members of the YMCA swim team and their high school’s respective swim teams, have been coached by both Barratt and Johnson since they were nine years old. It was Garcia’s fourth trip to nationals and Pontarolo’s third.
“They swam great at nationals and got to show off their routine,” said Barratt. “They had fun and they deserve that. The younger girls look up to them and really they set a great example.”
Pontarolo-Reid and Garica may look up to Lorraine Hack, who got her start at the Olympia Synchro Club before competing with a Seattle based program to gain more exposure. Hack, a recent Tumwater High School graduate who works at the Olympia Downtown branch, will be attending the Ohio State University this fall, one of very few universities with a varsity synchro team.
“She’s a great swimmer and we still get to visit with her and see her all the time,” said Barratt. “It wouldn’t surprise me if we see her in Rio (Brazil) in 2016 (for the Summer Olympics).
“She is just a very nice gal,” Johnson added.
Having hardworking and talented athletes, with a pleasant personality out of the water as well, is huge for the program. Next year, the Olympia Synchro Club will gain even more recognition and exposure as they will help with the Age Group Nationals at the King County Aquatic Center in 2014.
“We’re the only Synchro club between Seattle and Portland, so we want to get it out there that we compete at a high level and can help develop synchronized swimmers no matter their skill or age group,” said Barratt.
Having a pair of USA Synchro certified judges and coaches in Barratt and Johnson is a luxury for the Y.
“They are great with the kids and being certified in both coaching and judging is a huge accomplishment and a lot of work,” said Tanya Bowers-Anderson, the Y’s Youth Development Director. “You would have to look hard to find two people who know more about the sport.”
As all coaches will tell you, leading a team requires you to know every single aspect of the sport forwards and backwards.
Barratt, now in charge of choreography, has to listen to music samples, lay out moves and then instruct her team to perform them in unity (regardless if it’s a solo, duet or group performance). The season starts back up in September and Barratt’s goal is to have the routine for each group completed by December. That gives the team a few months to learn and memorize it before performances begin in late winter and early spring.
“She hears the music and just sees the moves in her head,” said Johnson about her daughter.
“I love that aspect, just the planning, researching new techniques, new types of routines,” said Barratt. “It’s hard but very fun.”
Sort of like synchronized swimming in general.
“The girls have to hold their breath, then come out of the water, swim, hold their breath, smile,” said Barratt. “And of course their legs aren’t touching the ground. This is for four minutes. So we need to choreograph routines that aren’t too challenging at the beginning. At the end, the girls are judged on if they are tired looking or if they’re moving slower. We have to plan it out.”
While it may be a physically exerting sport, it’s challenging for Barratt and Johnson to get away from it.
“If you’re a person who likes to spend more time underneath the water then above it while swimming, synchronized swimming is for you,” said Johnson.
“It’s about creativity, elegance, strength, focus, fitness,” said Barratt. “Synchro has everything, and that’s what appeals to everyone involved in it.”
The Olympia Synchro Club offers a free trial practice for all those interested in the sport. For more information on both the youth and master’s program of the Olympia Synchro Club, visit www.southsoundymca.org or call the Olympia Downtown branch at (360) 357-6609.