“If you cheer when we’re underwater, you’re not helping — we won’t hear you,” Signe Harriday chided friends and family gathered on the St. Louis Park High School pool deck before the Subversive Sirens’ final dress rehearsal.
The first bars of Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” cued Harriday and the other Sirens into the pool, where the fivesome floated in an arrow formation, moving their arms to the beat. Then four Sirens lifted the fifth out of the water in the victorious pose of an aquatic Prince trophy, with purple lipstick and the late musician’s sequined symbol emblazoned on the front of her bathing suit. The crowd, as instructed, whooped and hollered.
When the Sirens took up synchronized swimming two years ago, as a duo, and became a fivesome just last fall, their experience ranged from a few years of preteen practices to absolutely none whatsoever. But after receiving guidance from a group of local “synchro” masters, the Sirens now plan to perform a polished Prince-medley routine at the Paris Gay Games on Tuesday.
The Sirens, who range in age from 39 to 49, aren’t just proving that it’s possible to become a competitive athlete in middle age. The group — which is majority queer and women of color — is bringing greater diversity and inclusivity to a sport that has long hewed close to tradition.
Out of the water, the Sirens work in creative fields (graphic design, theater, art) or those with a social justice bent (community organizing, activism). They see synchronized swimming as an extension of both spheres.
“Our mission is explicitly around black liberation, body positivity, queer visibility and equity in the aquatic arts,” said Harriday.
Harriday first heard about the Gay Games, a quadrennial international sporting event, from friends who had competed. It sounded fabulous.
“In my imagination, it was this amazing unicorn paradise where us gay folk and LGBTQ folk were in a happy-happy wonderland,” she recalled. “Disneyland for the gays mixed with the Olympics.”
In 2014, Harriday and her girlfriend attended the games in Cleveland. The event did have some of those “rainbow and magic qualities” she’d expected, because it emphasizes community and connection and as much as athleticism. Harriday found the international camaraderie especially poignant for those afraid to be openly gay in their home countries.
But as inclusive as the games seemed — with same-sex dance partners, a wide range of body types and athletic abilities (participants don’t have to qualify) — the competitors and audience were predominantly male and white. Harriday wanted to help change that.
Back home in the Twin Cities, during the lunch break of a workshop, Harriday told her friend Suzy Messerole about her amazing trip to the games.
Harriday wasn’t much of an athlete, but the games had inspired a gutsy thought: What if next time she competed?
Messerole called the idea “a doable dream,” and the next thing she knew, she had signed on to the harebrained scheme as well. (The fact that the next games were in Paris helped.)
Right there at lunch, the two looked up the list of sports included in the Gay Games. They quickly settled on synchronized swimming.
“We both dance, we both do yoga, how hard could this be?” Messerole remembers thinking.
Getting in sync
Making good on their plan was harder than hatching it.
There aren’t many adult synchro groups in Minnesota, despite the fact that competitive synchronized swimming was a part of the Minneapolis Aquatennial in the 1940s (remember the Aqua Follies show?) and that Twin Cities high schools have powerhouse varsity teams.
So Harriday and Messerole found a friend to show them the basics and began practicing on their own. By 2016, another friend who swam with the state’s only ladies masters team, the Northern Pikes, invited them to join their practices.
Messerole agreed to attend, but then chickened out.
“Even though I had a friend in the group, I was so nervous that I drove to the school three times and then texted her from the parking lot and said I couldn’t make it,” Messerole recalled.
Eventually, both Messerole and Harriday joined the group’s twice-weekly practices, where they found another novice, Nicki McCracken. By fall of 2017, Harriday and Messerole recruited McCracken to the Sirens along with two other friends.
The group had plenty to learn.
Of the five Sirens, Zoe Hollomon had the most synchro experience: a few years of training in a community center’s after-school program, when she was a kid. Harriday had taken a one-week class in fourth grade. And Messerole had created what she calls “epic choreographed dances” as a kid at her small-town municipal pool. Tana Hargest was a swimmer, but had never sculled (using one’s arms as propellers) or done a flamingo (one leg sticking straight out of the water, with the other one bent).
The Sirens’ early practices were about as graceful as a belly flop. They bumped into one another underwater; they struggled to get from point A to point B in one breath.
“It was much harder than I thought it was going to be,” McCracken admitted. “The joke that I tell is that I thought it would be like dancing underwater, but really it’s like dancing underwater while trying not to drown.”
But less than a year later, the Sirens are in sync. Their bodies float in a star formation. Sculling arms balance and propel. Legs rise in the air and point simultaneously, open as splits, or twist into descending spirals.
And while they may not have the robotic precision of Olympic competitors, any wobbles or miscues in the Sirens’ routine reveal just how much strength, agility, endurance and breath control are required to perform aquatic gymnastics.
“It’s been so much fun to be able to work with them,” said Sandy Ness, a longtime synchro coach, judge and member of the Northern Pikes, who has been one of the Sirens’ primary mentors. “Our team admires them for what they’ve been able to accomplish.”
On a mission
Though the Sirens want to perform well in Paris, winning isn’t their priority.
“Everyone gets a participation medal, so we’re definitely bringing home bling no matter what happens,” Harriday said.
More important, the Sirens hope that their group can inspire people of all shapes and hues to see themselves as synchronized swimmers, especially as people of color are substantially underrepresented in all water sports.
Even before their international debut, the Sirens’ message of inclusivity is having a ripple effect. The team has garnered the attention of both national and local press. And its own fans.
When the Sirens practice at the Blaisdell YMCA in Minneapolis, they share the pool with neighborhood kids, who enjoy watching the team practice.
Recently, one of the little girls showed up to a Sirens practice dressed especially for the occasion. Wearing swim goggles and a fishlike tail, the young black mini-mermaid watched, transfixed, as the delighted fivesome performed their water dance.