2007-11-14 / Sports

In synch with swimming

By Sande Snead

Rachel Stuhlmiller (from top), Melissa Heide and the rest of the Dolpholinas pracsee tice a routine at the Jewish Community Center. Rachel Stuhlmiller (from top), Melissa Heide and the rest of the Dolpholinas pracsee tice a routine at the Jewish Community Center. In the 1950s, the name Esther Williams was synonymous with water ballet or synchronized swimming.

In Chesterfield County, the new names in synchronized swimming are Rachel Stuhlmiller, a 17-year-old student at James River High School, and Melissa Heide, a 15-year-old Brandermill resident who is home schooled. Both swim on the Jewish Community Center's (JCC) long-standing Dolpholinas Synchronized Swim Team.

The Dolpholinas this summer competed in the 2007 U.S. Senior Open Championship in Waipio, Hawaii, placing 7th overall competing against national teams from China, Quebec and Malaysia. In summer 2008, they will compete again in national competition - this time in New York.

Synchronized swimming is a hybrid of swimming, gymnastics and dance. It involves competitors (either individuals, duets, trios or teams) combining strength, endurance, flexibility and artistry with breath control while upside down underwater.

Swimmers perform two routines for the judges, one technical and one free.

Stuhlmiller has been swimming competitively for nine years. She took a class in synchronized swimming at the YMCA that evolved into a team.

"There were three big synchronized swimming teams in the Richmond area - Briarwood, Octopi (through VCU) and Dolpholinas through the JCC," Stuhlmiller said. "Dolpholinas is the only team left."

In fact, the Dolpholinas has been around for 40 years. Carole Mitchell, the team coach, swam for the team when she was a teen. She is also national technical president for United States Synchronized Swimming (USSS).

Dolpholinas Synchronized Swim Team is open to girls 11-18 years old. The program runs September through mid-May.

Training is rigorous. Heide practices three nights a week from 7-9 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays and 4-5:30 p.m. on Fridays from September through mid-May. She has been swimming competitively for eight years - more than half of her life.

"Of course, I'm thinking about college and whether I'll want to continue to swim or if I'll be glad to be free of those bonds," Heide said. "By the time I graduate I will have been swimming for 10 years. I might want to be a normal person instead of having this huge commitment. But most people who leave synchronized swimming, end up coming back."

Stuhlmiller agrees that the commitment is enormous. "You don't have time for any school sports. I'm a runner, but that's just to stay in shape for synchronized swimming, which is a very intense sport."

There are other sacrifices as well. Travel expenses for competitions can be costly, and then there are those beautiful bathing suit costumes adorned with sequins and other embellishments that can cost $100 to $150 each.

And how does the girls' hair stay so perfect?

"We use Knox jello," Heide revealed. "We have this big orange box of jello, and we take the packets and mix it with hot boiling water so it has a molasses consistency. We paint it on our head, and it hardens there and keeps our hair in place. The only way to get it out is with hot boiling water."

Still, the rewards are great. "In Hawaii, we were exposed to so many different languages and cultures," Stuhlmiller said, "and the community is so tight knit that everyone talks to everyone else. I got to speak to a couple of people in French."

The Dolpholinas are proud of their performance in Hawaii. "Our technical routine was to John Denver's 'Thank God I'm a Country Boy,'" Heide said. "We were supporting each other underwater, and that routine was so fast and so hard. You have to do everything perfectly together, and it lasted for two minutes, so we were amazed there were no penalties. We screamed our heads off."

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