When Zoe Hollomon was first introduced to synchronized swimming at a Jewish community center at 9 years old, she learned a very formal, old-school style of the sport. Her coach “was strict about no splashing,” Hollomon said, “and everything had to look very ballet-like, femme, pretty and dainty.”
But those days are long gone. Esther Williams, a competitive swimmer turned actress who became famous in the early 1940s, is no longer the pinnacle of the synchro look.
Today, Hollomon, a 39-year-old black queer activist in Minneapolis, represents synchronized swimming — and its future.
A few years ago, Hollomon joined a synchro team called the Subversive Sirens, which is made up of five women in their late 30s and 40s. They encourage a looser, splash-friendly synchro style that mirrors the open, inclusive image the team presents. The teammates — Hollomon, Signe Harriday, Nicki McCracken, Suzy Messerole and Tana Hargest — are mostly queer and mostly women of color. They demonstrate how all body shapes and sizes are beautiful, strong and capable of doing amazing things.
“We respect the women that have done synchro before us, but we definitely want to blow up the whole idea that you have to look a certain way to do synchro,” Holloman said. “We feel like it’s really for everybody, and in particular for women of color and queer women. We want to create visibility to just say, ‘Hey this is for all of us. Anybody can do this.’ ”
In August, the Subversive Sirens will travel to Paris for the 10th Gay Games, a quadrennial tournament that began in 1982. In Paris, the team will perform a free combo routine, set to Prince music, in addition to two duets – a technical routine and an artistic routine, which Harriday and Messerole will swim together.
The inclusivity ethos of the Sirens corresponds with the mission of the Gay Games, which bears similarities to the Olympics. There is one big difference between the two: The Gay Games don’t have qualifying standards for the 36 sports and 14 cultural events in which people participate. Founded on the principles of participation, inclusion and personal best, the Gay Games promote equality through sport and culture, said R. Tony Smith, who serves on the board of directors.
By competing at the Gay Games, the Sirens are coming full circle. Harriday, a founding member of the team, first became inspired to swim after attending the 2014 Gay Games with her girlfriend. That year, the Games were in Cleveland, and the couple watched athletes compete in everything from beach volleyball to swimming to professional dance.
“Everybody’s gay and happy … there’s a breathable joyousness and celebration,” Harriday said. “It’s this cultural and community event, and it’s amazing because you’ve got people who are Olympic-caliber athletes — [and] people who are not.”
In Cleveland, Harriday crossed paths with athletes who live in countries where LGBTQ rights are seen as a threat.
“You meet people who literally cannot be ‘out’ for fear of their life,” she said. “They are coming to the event under a veil of secrecy and are experiencing what it feels like to be ‘out’ inside of an open community.”
When Harriday, who was teaching at an arts high school at the time, returned to Minnesota that year, she told some of her coworkers about the Games. Suzy Messerole, one of Harriday’s colleagues and friends, was equally inspired. They started scheming about how they could compete in the Gay Games themselves.
They chose synchronized swimming because they both liked to swim and had exposure to synchro as young people: Harriday had attended a camp in elementary school, and Messerole made “magic happen” in the pool as a kid.
They formed the Subversive Sirens as a twosome. For awhile, they just played in the pool, experimenting with swim moves at the Blaisdell YMCA in Minneapolis. They embarked on their training in earnest at a high school pool in St. Louis Park, a suburb of Minneapolis. It was around this time that they gained three new team members: Hollomon, Tana Hargest, a 48-year-old cultural producer, and Nicki McCraken, a 49-year-old graphic designer.
In St. Louis Park, the Sirens learned from a group of masters-level senior women swimmers called the Northern Pikes. Many of the Northern Pikes women had been doing synchro for decades, but they showed a willingness to teach the younger generation of swimmers.
The team now has a professional synchro choreographer, but they still rely on the Northern Pikes for advice and encouragement. “They are so sweet and supportive and encouraging to us,” Hollomon said. “They teach us things, like how to keep count under water and how to deal with cramps in your feet and your toes.”
Sandy Ness, who has been doing synchro since she was a freshman in high school in the mid 1960s, swims with the Northern Pikes. She fills in for the Sirens at practices when someone is missing and offers her expertise. “It’s just a riot,” she said, for the old guard to help prepare the Sirens for their big competition. “The Sirens are so enthusiastic that it’s just kind of a contagious good thing that happens.”
While the older swimmers have a lot to teach the younger group, Ness said it goes the other way as well. For example, the Sirens decided they wanted to wear goggles for their routine. For many of the masters, the idea was unheard of.
In the pool, the Sirens are captivating. They are unified in their belief that joy is a radical act. It’s a team of black liberation and social justice artists who are bringing their vision of self-care as an artistic practice poolside.
At their recent “dive-in,” (like a drive-in, only at swimming pool), the team rallied an enthusiastic crowd at the Blaisdell YMCA, where they still sometimes train. The Sirens got supporters to participate in a swimming flash mob, demonstrated synchro moves, and debuted two of the three routines they’ll be bringing to Paris. They also sported T-shirts that featured a quote by the black lesbian feminist writer Audre Lorde:
Perhaps it’s not surprising that a group of athletes, most of whom are artists and activists, would ground their practice in queer and black liberation theory. Synchronized swimming “is an embodied way of thinking about theory,” explained Hargest, a Sirens member. “A big part of it is that we are not going to get free if there is not some joy. This is about generating joy, and embodying joy. … Joy is a resistive act.”
Just as Lorde’s writings on black liberation, black joy, self-care and pleasure are fundamental to the swimming team’s philosophy, so is the “emergent strategy” explored by author Adrienne Maree Brown, who writes about the whole being more than the sum of its parts. In her latest book, Brown uses collaborative systems in nature, like flocking birds, ant colonies, fern fractals and wave particles as metaphors for collective movements.
Think of starlings, which are common garden birds, as an example. Starlings create swarms of thousands of birds, but do so by being focused on their particular group of seven. “You have to pay attention and be in sync,” Hargest said. “That allows a thousand starlings to move in and out.”
Beyond self-care, Holloman points to the ways synchro is also a creative outlet. During a recent practice, they decided to add a black power salute to their routine. “It’s cool to add little tweaks and changes,” Hollomon said. “We put our own funk to it.”
For Messerole, 46, being part of the Sirens has opened her eyes to the ways that, despite being a confident artist with much success in her life, she has internalized body-shaming messages.
“If you had told me two years ago that I was going to do a photo shoot in a swimsuit and would [then] put the photos all over social media, I would have said, ‘No, you’re lying,’ ” Messerole said. Through training, Messerole has been amazed by what her body can do. She realized, “I’m going to stop caring what size I am – that is so fundamentally unimportant to this body that can do all of these things.”
Plus, synchronized swimming is kind of a femme lesbian dream come true, Messerole said: “I get to be sporty, but I get to do it in a sparkly costume.”
Perhaps the most fantastic part about the Sirens is their joyful, rousing social media posts. With videos, photos and messaging, the Sirens hold space for their diverse, radical presence and bodies, serving up inspiration and spreading their ebullition.
Sometimes, they get messages from people who want to be part of the team. “We are getting messages like, ‘Hey, I’m fat. I’m queer. I used to do synchro in fourth grade — can I join you?’ And we’re like, “Yes!’ ” Harriday said. Using tags like #blackgirlsynchro, the group hopes to grow their positive message through social media.
According to Hollomon, having a rigorous social media presence has been due in part to there being so few images of women of color and women with larger body types online. The team has looked for YouTube videos of synchro featuring black swimmers, and they are very hard to find. The search showed just how very narrow the image of a synchronized swimmer is in popular culture.
The Subversive Sirens are determined to change the public image of what a swimmer looks like.
“We’re doing it as part of an artistic practice, as part of a community-building practice, as part of a social justice practice,” Hollomon said.