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All Together Now

Forty years into its on-again, off-again history here, Swarthmore synchronized swimming—née water ballet—hit an early 1980s peak thanks to a very special group of women.

PHYLLIS HALL RAYMOND ’54, M’71: I fell in love with synchronized swimming watching Esther Williams—she was so graceful and looked so good in the water. When I did it at Swarthmore, I didn’t look quite that good. But I loved it, so I wanted to help bring it back decades later.

DIANE DIETZEN ’83: Phyllis Raymond recognized that Becky Shahan ’83 and I had both done synchro and asked us to help recruit. What she found out was that Becky was really good and I was ... piddling.

TAMARA PAYNE-ALEX ’86: My joining was a fluke: Some girls asked me and I said sure … except I couldn’t swim. So they asked if I could float. Practice was excruciatingly hard, but everyone was so encouraging that I kept at it. By my senior year, I could swim—and swim well.

AMANDA KONRADI ’84: No other sport requires you to hold your breath, exert yourself at full capacity, and constantly risk getting kicked in the head … while smiling.

REGINA HANLON BARLETTA ’83: Even with so much time in bathing suits, there weren’t body-image issues. We were all shapes and sizes. It was freeing to never be self-conscious.


TAMAH KUSHNER ’83: It pleasantly surprised me how easy it was to start a sport here—people were very generous with their time. We began at Hall Gym’s pool, where you shook your clothes out for fear of cockroaches.

DIETZEN: I thought the old pool was beautiful, but most people associated it with swim-test trauma.

BARLETTA: In Hall Gym, you could hear the music above the water but not below. Somebody would tap the edge with a wrench to make a beat for us. We circulated a petition to get input in the process when they built Ware Pool in 1981. It was joyous to have this new, clean, fresh, big pool with an underwater sound system.

KONRADI: I choreographed a routine to a Simon & Garfunkel song, but I was having trouble explaining it. Everyone was frustrated until Tamara, who had been singing along, connected my instructions to the lyrics, and things fell into place. That day, I learned how to meet learners where they are.


KUSHNER: We usually wore bathing suits that overlapped in the front. One time, we were doing this trick, connected in a big water wheel, and ...

MARY WASHBURNE ’83: Long before the famous “wardrobe malfunction,” it happened to us!

BARLETTA: One routine started with us wearing white gloves, performing languidly to Beethoven’s Fifth; we threw them off for the disco version, “A Fifth of Beethoven.” Even now, I’ll hear a song and my arms go up in the air.

WASHBURNE: The guys’ swim team joined us for some routines. To their surprise, they sank like stones at first!


RAYMOND: It’s unbelievable that we coordinated and hosted the nationals here in 1983—competitors included Arizona’s Candy Costie and Tracie Ruiz, who won the first synchronized swimming duet gold medal in 1984, when it became an Olympic sport. Those athletes were practicing eight hours a day; we were doing eight hours a week, so for our girls to do so well was magnificent.

MARTHA SWAIN ’83: I’ll never forget when these Amazons from other schools came out in matching bathrobes with matching gear bags and matching towels. I had no idea how incredible synchronized swimming could be—because we weren’t!

PAYNE-ALEX: Imagine me, who had been in synchronized swimming for a year and a half, “competing” at the nationals—it was wonderful.

DIETZEN: My joke I tell people is that I was part of the 13th trio in the nation in 1983 … because there were 13 trios.

JOHN BOWE ’83: The computer center staff asked me to create a program for scoring nationals; it took me maybe two months. This was all with “terminals,” no Windows or mice, just a keyboard with an 80-by-24 character screen and a dot matrix printer. Still, wicked cool for that time. I think I got paid the highest rate for campus jobs, $2.35 an hour, enough for half an Apollo pizza in Media.


WASHBURNE: I bet if you got us all together now, we could get at least some of our old routines down. To this day, I still love swimming and I always do a couple of laps of synchro.

SWAIN: My days of glory were dim—I didn’t like being upside down in the water and could never get exactly vertical—but super fun. I still love to swim, even though I’m still not good.

PAYNE-ALEX: The best thing is amazing my children. When I do my tricks, it wows them.

DIETZEN: We all keep in touch, mostly through Facebook, although we tried to go swimming at reunion a couple of years ago. I think about it every time I do laundry—my poster from nationals hangs in there.

KONRADI: Although synchro is stereotyped for the glitzy suits, hair, and makeup, that part was my least favorite. (“Femme” is not my forte.) I reveled in the physicality and discipline—I was never in as good shape as when I could swim 75 yards underwater on one gulp of air.

KUSHNER: I still do the beginning of our nationals routine when I get in a pool. Our (somewhat) synchronized swimming is that ingrained. I mean, for four years we basically showered together and talked about everything. We were—we are—family.


SWAIN: Synchro sums up Swarthmore for me. In high school, we were all valedictorians, but at Swarthmore, you’re in the bottom quarter. At least I was. And then, in the swimming pool when the big guns came out at nationals, we weren’t just in the bottom quarter, but the bottom 1 percent—but you can have a lot of fun there.

BARLETTA: Swarthmore can get very serious. So it was great to be able to enjoy each other’s company and the challenge of being underwater, trying to connect with seven other people to do these maneuvers, then coming up, sputtering and swearing. It was hard, it was fun, it was pure joy.

KUSHNER: I was never an athlete until college, but that experience led me to a more physical life. I wouldn’t have gotten the chance if I hadn’t been at Swarthmore, where you could be not so great and still be captain of a team.

DIETZEN: A common Swarthmore experience is you feel that everyone else is amazing and you’re just … not. And so even though synchronized swimming wasn’t quite life-changing, having something we all built together that was purely ours, that we contributed, was the charm of it all.

WASHBURNE: It bonded us for life and so did Phyllis Raymond: She was the wonderful heart. I still treasure my memories—and my nationals T-shirt!

RAYMOND: I love synchronized swimming, but what meant the most was being able to give back something like this experience to Swarthmore—and especially to the members of the team. They were and are so very special, each and every one.

Swimming Symphony