Ornamental swimming had its origins in Europe but the sport that grew into synchronised swimming owes its international recognition above all to the efforts of North Americans. Margaret (Peg) Sellers, first a champion and later president of the Canadian federation, and Mary Derosier, who chaired the US governing body, played leading roles in gaining its acceptance as an Olympic demonstration sport. American Richard Dodson published the sport’s first magazine, Synchronized Swimmer, in 1951. Sellers edited a handbook for the sport in Montreal in 1952 and that year, when the sport was demonstrated at the Helsinki Olympics, the FINA Congress accepted international rules submitted by Derosier and Sellers.
Marion Kane, a former junior national swimming champion, founded the San Francisco Merionettes Club in 1956 and coached them until 1973. The International Swimming Hall of Fame (ISHOF) said she had produced 51 national champions, secured 67 national titles (18 solo, 27 duet, and 22 team) and a grand total of 303 national and international titles, including the Pan-American Games. The Merionettes made tours of Europe, Japan and Latin America. “She (Kane) did most to create the quality and class that gave her sport the world recognition that led to World Championships and Olympic acceptance,” states her International Swimming Hall of Fame citation.
When synchronised swimming gained that recognition, the sport’s first world champions were coached by Kay Vilen at Santa Clara. Before her untimely death in 1976, Vilen saw her Santa Clara Aquamaids, featuring Teresa Andersen and Gail Johnson-Buzonas, sweep the titles at the 1973 and 1975 World Championships and the Pan-American Games and Pan-Pacific Championships. The Aquamaids later starred Becky Dyroen-Lancer, triple gold medallist at the 1994 World Championships, coached by Chris Carver.
One of Vilen’s Aquamaids was Gail Emery, who became a national team champion in 1972 and took part in the demonstration synchro team at the Munich Olympics. That year she began coaching the Walnut Creek Aquanuts, a team her mother had founded. In 1980, Emery’s Aquanuts finally defeated the long-reigning Santa Clara Aquamaids and began an unprecedented streak of 10 consecutive national titles. Emery became national team coach in 1979 and was coach and manager when synchronised swimming made its Olympic bow in Los Angeles in 1984, helping to coach Tracie Ruiz to gold in the solo and, with Candy Costie, in the duet.
Emery was head coach at the 1988, 1992 and 1996 Olympics and assistant head coach in 2000. Swimmers she personally coached included 1992 Olympic duet champions Karen and Sarah Josephson, 1992 solo gold medallist Kristen Babb-Sprague and five members of the victorious US team at the 1996 Olympics. “Emery’s athletes introduced a technical expertise to the sport that shed the old-school description of synchronized swimming as ‘water ballet’ and led to the acceptance of the sport as a physically demanding yet artistically expressive athletic event. She implemented scientifically designed training methods and diverse cross-training regimens to take her teams to a level only pursued by others,” reads her ISHOF citation.
Russia overhauled the USA with title sweeps at the 1997 World Cup and 1998 World Championships, Olga Sedakova and Olga Brusnikina in the forefront. “A few years ago it was enough to have several ultra-difficult elements or connections of elements between which a swimmer just swam,” Brusnikina’s coach Elena Polyanskaya said after Brusnikina won her second solo world title in 2001. “Now all routines of the best athletes are filled with difficulty from beginning to end without a pause. And this makes them stand out from the others.” The Two Anastasias – Davydova and Ermakova – became the most prolific duet winners ever in the first decade of the 21st Century under the guidance of Two Tatyanas – Danchenko and Pokrovskaya. “Thorough work was done before the results appeared from 1998 onwards. And when the medals started to come it was easier to find new talents and attract them to this discipline,” Davydova said. “Russian synchronised swimmers increased the speed of the routines, keeping nevertheless in mind that we must be able to differentiate each movement. This tendency was then imitated by the other countries and that is why the discipline has evolved to this demanding and complex level.”