Synchronised Swimming in the City
I’ll set the scene: outside the windows it’s already dark. Inside it’s the intense white of doctor’s surgeries and schoolrooms. Push the door open and the odour of chlorine overwhelms you like a wave. It smells of summers abroad and childhood sports lessons, a blended nostalgia of both leisure and routine. Flip-flops wet-slap everywhere. The shrill blast of a whistle is answered by the whine of a child thwarted in mischief.
Giggles, snorts, splashes, squeals. Grunts, splutters, sniffs, sneezes. All these human sounds, the huffing and puffing, laughing and shouting overlap into what this is, the unmistakable soundtrack of a swimming pool.
The Queen Mother Sports Centre in Victoria may be a little worn, but it boasts a 25-metre pool with a sky-blue slide that snakes over the far end. Yet my mission lies past these attractions, in a smaller deeper pool tucked in the corner, where a higgledy-piggledy line of women is pulling on swim caps, adjusting swimsuits, fixing on nose clips. It is a Tuesday evening, and this is Seymour Artistic Swimming’s Masters team (formerly Seymour Synchronised Swimming), the first ever synchro club in London and still the only one in Central.
‘Sport is about characters, about someone who can inspire’, Charlotte Lea, long-time coach and former team member tells me cheerfully, as she ambles along the edge of the pool eyeing her students. ‘That was Dawn.’
Dawn Zajac – revered and respected by her former pupils – founded Seymour in 1962. A number of these ex-students, including some who are in their fifties and sixties, continue coaching, carrying forward Dawn’s legacy and infecting new generations with her irrepressible love of the form.
Formerly a trapeze artist, Dawn was a Drill Sargent in the war and a swimming teacher after it. She went to America to investigate and train in ‘water ballet’ as it was sometimes called, and determined to bring it back to the UK where it was still relatively unknown.
Susan Innes, one of her early pupils who joined in 1963 as a six-year-old, went on to spend 4 years swimming for Team GB and is currently head coach. ‘As the sport evolved, we needed to promote it,’ she explains. ‘We couldn’t do competitions if there was no one to compete against, so Dawn would take us all over. We’d visit speed clubs, not necessarily in London, and ask if we could put on a display to get them interested. It was especially attractive to girls who were past their sell-by-date in speed swimming, but rather then waste years of training they could now channel their energy into synchro.’
Always the most ardent champion of artistic swimming, Dawn must have been delighted when her beloved sport was officially recognised by the Olympics in the mid-80s. Today it is has become ultra-professional; a presentation of gracefully choreographed movements with swimmers clad in in glittering costumes. And while it may appear effortless, this is a deception. Beneath the beautiful routines artistic swimming is a gruelling sport for which you need aerobic endurance, immense physical strength, flexibility and lung capacity.
‘It’s so competitive now, but it was so much fun back then,’ Susan tell me. ‘Dawn’s brother was an actor, and he’d put on these plays. Alice in Waterland, or Noah’s Ark. All the little swimmers would be dressed up; my sister was a piglet for Noah’s Ark. She could barely swim, and she and her partner had to come up the length of the pool to the diving board, which was the plank to get on the ark. They came up two-by-two in their armbands!’
Susan’s career highlight was performing for the Queen in 1969 in one of Dawn’s routines titled ‘Beefeaters’. ‘When I think of what we were wearing!’ Susan laughs uproariously. ‘The mums made the outfits. They were meant to look like Beefeater tunics, so we had the thickest nylon leotards, red fishnets with a garter, bright white nylon gloves. Our hats were made from black netting but I was a skinhead, so I had about ten tonnes worth of hair grips to make sure it stayed on. And goggles hadn’t been invented yet – you can imagine the state of our eyes!’
Today, Seymour Artistic Swimming’s teams continues to compete voraciously across all age groups. ‘In America there are women aged 90 who still swim competitively. Health permitting, I always want to compete because that’s what I’ve done all my life.’ Susan says.
Synchronised swimming has become a spectator favourite on the world stage; it was one of the first sporting events to sell-out at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Yet in the less exotic location of Queen Mother Sports Centre, the club faces its fair share of troubles. ‘We’re short on coaches, the rates at swimming pools have been hiked up. We need premium hours and a pool deep enough.’
Worse still, their teams fell apart during the pandemic, as many foreign nationals based in London returned home. ‘We call them blow-ins’, laughs Charlotte, ‘They join us while they’re passing through.’ Once boasting a diverse membership with swimmers from France, Greece, Russia, Japan, Germany etc., thanks to covid-19 there’s been a drop across all age groups. Over the lockdown months, they encouraged swimmers to do land training (practicing formations on the floor); and virtual swimming competitions were born, in part to maintain interest. Though there’s no getting away from the fundamental fact that you can’t swim without water.
Artistic Swimming as a sport has come a long way, but one gets the impression at Seymour the basics still count. There is a sense of community amongst the diehard coaches like Charlotte and Susan. And there is a commonality amongst the multicultural mix on the Masters team who come to practice weekly. Although few speak the same language, it is one of those rare scenarios in which individual passion encourages strangers work together. In this case, it has to be in perfect unison.