Hold your Breath, Sports Fans! Let’s Go Synchro with Dr. Ellie Oakman

synchronized swimming

Oh Rio, you’ve certainly kept us entertained over the last two weeks. Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky have made their big medal splash, and the platform and springboard divers, well, they’ve hardly made a splash at all (except for the poor Filipinos). In these final days, we think one of the most interesting, and most mystifying, sports to watch is synchronized swimming. The dramatic makeup and costumes, the hair pulled tight in a bun, and those unfathomable routines! The athletes are part mermaid, part gymnast, part Houdini holding their breath for what seems like forever, all while executing exacting, and yes synchronized, choreography.

We were thrilled to discover that one of our own Roper St. Francis doctors, OB-GYN Eleanor Oakman, MD, could enlighten us about the sport. Dr. Oakman was a nationally-ranked synchronized swimmer, who competed all the way through college, and gave up her Olympic dreams to pursue her medical career. Here she gives us some of the how behind the “wow” as we tune into to Rio’s “synchro” competition.

How did you get started in the sport? How long did you compete?

My mom says I saw the 1984 LA Olympics on TV and thought that synchro (what those in the sport call synchronized swimming) was awesome. She found a Saturday morning class at the local city pool in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and I started in 5th grade when I was 11. We then developed as a team and started competing. I swam all through high school at the club level and then swam at Carleton College. I competed every year at Nationals in college, and was 8th my senior year in the solo competition!

What did you enjoy about it?

Synchro is very challenging athletically. Not only are you sprinting while holding your breath, but you are also dancing, doing gymnastics and performing.  I loved the team competition best, which is eight athletes together. You start to do lifts and throws and can make really interesting patterns. And its creative, you get to make up moves and choreograph your own routines.

What’s the physical demand like – the hardest part? How do you train?

I trained six days a week when I was in college. Training is part speed swimming, with laps, weights, cardio, and part flexibility, dance. We do a lot of “deck work” out of the pool to get the timing right with the music. We also do a lot of holding our breath, so we train by doing sprint laps like speed swimmers, then swimming back again underwater. One of the most difficult things to master and train for is an upside down split in the water – you don’t have gravity to help pull your legs flat, so you have to train to have an over-split on land to be able to have a flat one in the water.

What’s the biggest misconception about the sport?

I think people think it is super easy, because that’s how the athletes try to make it appear! But if you look at the split screen shots of the competition at the Olympics (cameras that show above and below the water at the same time) you can really see how hard it is to keep both arms or legs out of the water at the same time.

Did you ever dream about competing at the Olympic level?

I definitely thought about it the first time I went to Nationals. But training for that would have meant putting off medical school, and I didn’t want to lose out on being a doctor!

Are there opportunities for everyday folks to learn more or participate locally?

Sadly, there isn’t a local team here anymore.  I’d love to see one get started!   Usasynchro.org is the website for our national organization.