"One, two, three, four – squeeze your butt, Paul! – seven, eight," coach Suzanne Baker says into the microphone, pacing the poolside deck and counting the beats to a techno remix of "Another One Bites the Dust."
The members of Tsunami Tsynchro are in the water doing leg splits in the air. The first time they try it, legs bash into heads. "OK, OK, I can fix this," says Baker. She has them add more space by pushing off each other's shoulders with their feet. They practice the new move repeatedly. "Again. Under. Again. Under," Baker commands.
Tsunami Tsynchro is the country's first – and right now, only – male synchronized swimming team. It grew out of the Tsunami Swim Team, a gay and lesbian masters team, started two years ago as a synchro team for gay men (though it now includes several women).
They practice twice a week, today holding their underwater positions with the help of empty milk containers. "The bottles force you to find your body mass," Baker explains as they work to mobilize their bodies. The team is preparing its technical routine, a 90-second display of its most difficult moves that will be performed at this summer's Gay Games in Chicago, where Tsunami Tsynchro will compete for the first time, alongside all-women's teams.
It will be a big summer for the team, but it could've been bigger. In August the XI Fédération Internationale de Natation World Masters Championships are coming to the United States for the second time ever, but the Tsunami team isn't allowed to compete. When the Bay Area hosts the FINA Championships at the Stanford Aquatic Center, the nation's first male synchro team will be just a Caltrain ride away from the bleachers, but a lot farther from being permitted into the pool.
Synchronized swimming combines rigorous physical exertion with the demands of polished performance. During routines, swimmers can't touch the pool's walls or bottom at any time. They spend a good portion of each routine with their heads underwater and bodies vertical, being judged on how high their legs reach. Coach Baker compares performing a synchro routine to "having to race a 400 individual medley in swimming, holding your breath every third lap, and smiling the entire time."
Stephen Houghton comes to the team with a history of Iron Man competitions and a seven-day stage race across the Sahara desert. He says synchro is tougher, and credits his one advantage not to his years of endurance sports but rather to his ballet training as a kid. "It gave me flexibility, and the ability to count to eight. You'd be surprised how many men can't count to eight."
Underwater, the swimmers have to do more than count and hold their breath; they also have to control their heart rate. "If you're pumped up and excited, you burn up all your oxygen," says Stuart Hills, a brown belt in tae kwon do and a former competitive swimmer. "You have to get into a relaxation state."
Pool time can be perilous too. Complicated lifts can lead to injury – bloody and broken noses, for example, and one bad incident involving a knee splintering a set of goggles. But during the routines, the difficulty of the sport has to melt away from the performance. "It's tough," Hills says, "but you're supposed to make it look easy."
Image is key to synchro – in a couple of ways. On the one hand, swimmers are judged by the attitude they project during routines; on the other, they must fight the image problem that has hindered their sport's mainstream acceptance.