Layla Smith, left, and Olivia Morgan, members of the U.S. National Synchronized Swimming Team, show their skills in the Southwest Pool.
LARGO – Grace, precision, strength, artistry and teamwork in the water.
That’s what synchronized swimming is all about, and the Southwest Pool will host some of the finest performers the sport has to offer Saturday, July 11, 10:45 a.m.
The U.S. National Synchronized Swimming Team has been practicing six days a week in Largo since mid-June, said Coach Linda Witter, preparing for the 2009 World Games in Rome, which begin July 17.
“They practice eight hours a day at least,” Witter said. “It’s a very, very difficult sport.”
Many of the girls are in college and practice year-round; “national team training really kicks it up a bunch of levels,” said Witter, who has had several coaching stints on national squads.
Several of her swimmers aspire to be on the 2012 U.S. Olympics team.
“I would say that you will have at least eight who will be on that team,” she said.
Witter, the Ohio State University synchronized swimming coach, was assistant coach for the National Swimming Team in 2004. The team won the bronze medal in duet and team events in the Olympics that year.
Being named the coach of the national team means a lot to Witter because in 2004, after the team had done “such a great job,” she developed cervical cancer.
Having to stay out of coaching for four years, she feels like she has been given a second chance.
“So now I feel I can do it again. I have a lot of athletes from Ohio State who have made this team,” Witter said. “It’s a really neat opportunity to be back on the international scene,” she said.
The U.S. Olympics team tied for fifth in the U.S. Olympics in 2008. Witter attributes the team’s slide from the medal tier to other countries becoming more competitive.
“We use to be the world leader in synchronized swimming. We went and showed everybody what we did and they ended up taking it and doing it better,” she said.
For athletes from China and several other countries, Olympics sports “is a way out for an athlete; here it’s a choice.”
“Athletes on first and second teams get treated differently – better food or their family ends up in a bet-
ter apartment. So there is a lot more motivation, economic motivation to do these things,” she said.
Nevertheless, Witter takes pride in her team members, who have diverse backgrounds and interests, from training Arabian horses to participating in opera.
“These kids are great. I just adore them,” Witter said.
One of Olympics hopefuls, Debbie Chen, 21, attends Stanford University and hopes to become a surgeon.
A swimmer for 11 years and collegiate All-American, Chen likes the combination of artistry and choreography of the sport. She looks forward to competing in the World Games and has high hopes for her team.
“I think we have a great team this year,” she said. “It’s a great mix of talent ... Every one gets along really well. The chemistry is really good.”
‘Bragging rights’ and ‘positive impact’
Largo aquatics Director Mark Abdo said in an e-mail that the National Team communicated with Susan Comerford, Suncoast WaterWorks, about the possibility of training in Largo. The Suncoast Water Works Synchronized Swim Team is the only year-round competitive synchronized swimming program in Pinellas County. The team consists of swimmers from Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties.
Comerford brought the team to Abdo’s attention and explained their needs as well as the positive influence on the local team. Abdo then contacted Sandra Mahoney, national team director, and worked out the details, he said.
“The coaches and athletes are happy to be in our area and are dedicated to being the very best, evident through the long hours in the pool every day,” Abdo said.
An autograph session will follow the water show inside the Southwest Recreation Center July 11. Team photographs will be provided.
“Hosting the National Synchronized Swimming Team creates excitement and energy within our division and those participating in aquatic programs,” Abdo said. “It also draws wonderful media attention to the sport, Southwest Pool and our city.”
Probably the most important aspect of the team being in Largo is the positive impact on young girls, he said.
Since the sport combines music, choreography and athleticism, Abdo believes this combination will draw more participants to the sport “as well as enhance the dreams for those already involved,” Abdo said.
“Of course, hosting the team allows me some bragging rights not only in Pinellas County but throughout the state of Florida with my colleagues in aquatics,” Abdo said.
Having the National Team train at Southwest Pool shows they highly respect the coaches and athletes of Suncoast Water Works, the age group synchro team that trains year-round at the pool, Abdo said.
“Secondly, the coaches and team managers recognize that the city has a quality aquatics division and facility in which to train,” Abdo said.
“In the past, Southwest Pool has hosted an International Diving competition between the United States and China, hosted the National Diving Championship for AAU, and now the National Synchronized Swimming Team before traveling to Rome to compete in the World Games,” Abdo said.
Witter said her mother used to live close to the Southwest Pool and would go there to do aerobics.
“It’s a wonderful facility,” Witter said. “We have been really grateful to be in Florida. It’s a fun place. Everybody has been so nice to us.”
She believes the team will come back, adding a caveat.
“Being in the lightning capital of the world is a little scary.”