Mermaids in Greensboro
They move inside the cavernous Greensboro Aquatic Center with feline grace, the US Women’s Synchronized Swimming Team, gliding across the deck like a single organism at the city’s newest swimming pool. Beautiful.
Strong. Their hair tucked into swim caps, their faces painted with waterproof make-up.
They’ve been in town through the weekend for the Olympic Trials, a major coup for the taxpayer-funded facility, and tonight, the last of the event, they’re going to show everybody why they want to compete in London this summer.
There are more than 1,600 fans of the sport in here tonight, nearly filling the upper seats, the lower poolside bleachers packed with young girls harboring dreams of synchronized glory all their own.
This is exactly the kind of thing the citizens of Greensboro were promised when funds for the facility — $12 million, which ended up being more like $19 million — were couched in a parks & rec bond that passed a voter referendum in 2008 and stewardship transferred to Coliseum Director Matt Brown and his staff: a relatively highprofile sporting event that puts heads in the city’s hotel beds, bodies on the streets, dollars in the coffers of local businesses. It adds to the city’s — and the coliseum’s — prestige and reputation. And it gives Brown a chance to counter the naysayers, one of whom, I’ll admit here, was me.
He’s here now, poolside, sipping on a Diet Pepsi when he says, “We’ve got 50 week ends booked already,” which runs counter to the economic impact study that predicted we could expect maybe 17.
And he’s got his eye on the 2016 Olympic Swimming Trials, for which, he says, the new facility will act as a warm-up pool.
“We’ll build the big one in the coliseum,” he says.
One thing upon which we can perhaps all agree is that the new natatorium [dick] is magnificent, the newest and nicest of its kind in the country, more than 78,000 square feet encompassing three pools, including a diving well with four springboards and three platforms, the highest of which rises 33 feet from the surface of the water, equipped with a sparger system that breaks up the surface to ensure a soft-water landing. There’s seating for 2,500, a classroom, a state-of-the-art scoreboard with LED video capacity, locker rooms and a gift shop.
Brown says, “The Olympic team says it’s the best sound system underwater they’ve seen.” And he points out that you can barely smell the chlorine in here.
The space is suitable for all manner of aquatic sports: swimming diving, water polo. They have already used it for kayaking, and Deputy Director Scott Johnson says they can even host SCUBA and snorkel training, lifesaving classes and military exercises in addition to the function it will provide for the local swim community.
“You got to look past the politics,” he says. “You come in here at 6 a.m. or 4 p.m. and see 200 kids training and you forget all the controversy.”
Now the US Olympic Synchronized Swimming Team comes from the locker room and assembles near the diving tank to prepare for a demonstration of its technical routine, the kind they’ll do if and when they make the cut for the London games. They stride to the deep end of the performance pool, the 11 of them recently named to the US squad, all lean muscle and squared shoulders, strike ballet-like poses poolside before diving into the water in unison with nary a splash, emerging as one in the center of the space.
The routine consists of sharp, precision moves, purposeful splashes like sprays of confetti, treading in 10 feet of water by moving their legs like eggbeaters underneath the surface. They leap from the water like dolphins, glide through it like sharks, concentric circles coming off them and lapping against the edges of the pool.
After the music ends, after they freeze in position above the waterline with wide, wet smiles, after the applause has lulled they swim in a serpentine line to the ladder and emerge from the water and take their due.
Afterwards, in a meet-and-greet session in the upper lobby, the women, now in yoga pants and team fleece, their wet hair pulled back, take their seats at a long table as a line 50 yards long queues past for autographs, photos, words of encouragement.
The first in line is a young boy, maybe 11 years old, wearing a new USA synchro T-shirt and holding a program turned to the blank pages in the back for autographs.
“I like your swimming,” he says to the first athlete on the line. He makes his way down, collecting signatures as his mother snaps pictures with her phone. Some of them even sign his miniature American flag.
He’s holding it in his hands afterwards, looking at it.
“Wow,” he says.