Penn’s Synchronized Swimmers Make a Splash

Dancing in water is much more challenging than people think, Eileen Wang says. 

Wang, a senior at the University of Pennsylvania, is one of this season’s 13-member synchronized swimming club. Known as Penn Synchro, the club has a 70-year history. 

A competitive swimmer for 11 years, Wang, a health and societies major from Richmond, Va., was feeling “burnt out.” However, after seeing Penn Synchro at the Activities Fair on Locust Walk during her freshman year, she thought synchronized swimming could offer something new and exciting –- and it did. 

“Synchronized swimming was a mode of expression through the water that I could never achieve with competitive swimming,” Wang says. “The fact that our team was able to compete at Nationals, with most us being newcomers, is incredible.” 

“It’s tough to train your breathing, do the right moves with your arms and legs to the beat and not wear contacts or goggles,” senior and team member Linnea Cederberg says. “Experienced synchronized swimmers easily keep their legs straight and keep smiling, but beginners have to think about so many aspects of the routine all at once. It can get pretty tiring.” 

Cederberg, from Roseburg, Minn., is an international studies and business major in the Huntsman Program. She had been a competitive swimmer since elementary school and hadn’t planed to continue. But, Penn Synchro gave her an avenue to do so in a different capacity. 

“I combined my love of swimming with my love of dancing, team performance and choreography,” she says. “It’s helped me to relax, because I know I don’t have to be perfect. It’s all about incremental improvement, teamwork and having fun.”

That’s why they’re at the David Pottruck Health and Fitness Center three days a week, testing the routines first “on land,” running through their moves in the pool and practicing “unders,” lengthy bouts of underwater swimming without breathing. 

“Not only do we have to pull off the physical movements,” Wang says, “we also have to hold our breath underwater for long periods of time, make sure that we are in pattern with our teammates, travel the appropriate length of the pool and hope our nose clips do not fall off.” 

But, the most challenging part is the “cognitive component. That’s what makes the sport so exciting to learn and practice.”

This year the team finished in the top 10 at the United States Collegiate Synchronized Swimming Championships in Gainesville, Fla. 

“By far, it was our most successful season since I’ve been here,” says Coach Lizzie Flanagan, a two-time Penn alum who has been involved with the team for 10 years. 

Flanagan was active in synchronized swimming for 13 years before coming to Penn as an undergraduate criminology major. After graduating in 2010, she came back to Penn and earned her M.S.W. from the School of Social Policy & Practice in 2014. 

At the national championships, Penn Synchro team members found themselves up against varsity programs and other club teams with current or former Olympians and veteran synchronized swimmers with years of experience. 

“Because we are one of the less-experienced teams in the country and we’re mostly made up of beginners, it was even more awesome to be able to compete on such a high level,” Flanagan explains, adding that achieving a spot in the top 10 took a lot of hard work from the dedicated team. 

While other teams use more instrumental pieces, Penn Synchro has a reputation for being “the team with the good music.” Flanagan says that’s because the team selects their own tunes, whether the routine involves the entire team, solos, duets or trios. 

“Our goal is to find music with a strong beat that’s easy to count to and something that we will have fun swimming to all year,” Flanagan says. “The students have a lot of autonomy in choosing the songs and opt for a good mix of contemporary music, musical and movie soundtracks, pop songs and everything in between.” 

“Songs with faster beats are easier to synchronize to in a team routine,” Wang says. “On the other hand, solo music is more artistic, slower and more free-form in nature.” 

Her solo this year was performed to Ellie Goulding’s “Love Me Like You Do.” 

Both Wang and Cederberg enjoy the teamwork and creativity that goes along with synchronized swimming and was not present in competitive swimming. 

Each year in September, the team hosts a “Demo Day” to showcase their routines and allow new members to try out. The fall is also when Penn Synchro starts practicing and working on choreography in preparation for the competition season in the spring.   

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