Grace Alwan couldn’t wait to start her senior year as a captain of the Andover High School swim and dive team, but then she was given the chance to represent her country.
Alwan is one of ten synchronized swimmers selected to compete at the Junior World Championships in Budapest, Hungary, with the USA junior national team. To prepare for that, she will train with the team all year, all the way out in California’s East Bay.
“I’ve always been really motivated to get to the national team level,” said Alwan, “so when I had this opportunity, I really wanted to do it.”
Synchronized swimming has been Alwan’s life since she was in first grade, but forgoing her last season at Andover was a difficult decision.
“It was really hard,’’ she said, “because I would have to leave school for my senior year, and leave the swim team, which I was really sad about because I had just been elected captain.”
Alwan was supposed to be co-captain alongside Sophia Ju, her partner in duo routines for several years.
“It was both extremely sad and really happy,” said Ju. “Of course she’s my best friend that I’ve swam with and gone to school with for the past eleven years, but at the same time I know that it’s always been her dream to be on the national team.”
Ju also tried out, but didn’t make it. She feels that Alwan simply had a stronger desire to be a part of the national team, and in her friend’s absence, Ju has doubled down on her responsibilities as captain at Andover.
Including Ju, there are nine swimmers on the Andover team who have a background in synchronized swimming. The training they do for synchro has undoubtedly helped them swim faster times for legendary coach Marilyn Fitzgerald.
“As far as I’m concerned,’’said Fitzgerald, “synchronized swimming is one of the hardest, most intense sports there ever could be.”
“Intense” is probably not a word often paired with synchronized swimming. It’s a sport that most people associate with graceful movement, not incredible physical strength, but the elegant display above the water conceals powerful legs churning underneath to make it all possible.
“I would relate it to gymnastics, or figure skating,” said Ju. “It’s supposed to look pretty effortless, like you’re not trying at all, but in reality you’re trying pretty hard.”
Fitzgerald said that synchronized swimmers come to her team with strong legs and excellent breath control; two qualities that translate extremely well to race success.
“It isn’t so much about speed, but strength,” Fitzgerald said about her general approach to training. “How do we get stronger in the short period of time we have?”
To that end, she has the girls swim with their heads out of the water during warm-ups. It’s a drill that the synchro swimmers excel at.
“That has nothing to do with making your stroke good,’’ said Fitzgerald. “In that short period of time that we do that, it has a whole lot to do with getting stronger faster.”
That strength-first approach has been successful for Andover, to the tune of 16 Division 1 state titles since 1999.
“Success does breed success,” said Fitzgerald, “and no group of girls coming in wants to be the one that stops the freight train from going on down the tracks.”
The winning tradition has made expectations clear, and the swimmers could not respect Fitzgerald more. She has coached 24 All-Americans and amassed over 260 meet wins, but those championships are what she keeps coaching for.
Ju is the two-time defending state champion in two events, and she will lead the pursuit of yet another state title. Junior Jordan Clements won the 100 breaststroke last year while her younger sister, Emily, won three events as a freshman, earning swimmer of the year honors. Still, it will take a full team effort to repeat.
“You can’t win with one or two or even three solid, top-level swimmers,” said Fitzgerald. “You have to have depth, and every single year we are able to fill the events.”
The most important thing Fitzgerald does is motivate her girls to push themselves.
“I have convinced them that the air on that podium is different than the air down on the deck, and the only way they’re ever gonna find out is to swim fast enough to get a ribbon, or a medal,” said Fitzgerald. “I have had girls come up to me with tears in their eyes afterwards saying, ‘you were right you were right, it’s the best feeling ever.’
“I believe they can do it, and it’s my job to make them believe they can do it,” said Fitzgerald. “As soon as they believe, it’s as good as done.”Tom Petrini can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.