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[Interview] with Vicki Valosik

by Leanne Phillips

This promises to be a good summer for synchronized swimming, renamed “artistic swimming” by World Aquatics (formerly known as Fédération Internationale de Natation or FINA) in 2017 after a request from the International Olympic Committee (IOC). One hundred years ago, the United States dominated in the sport of swimming, and in 1984, synchronized swimming became an Olympic event. But as I write this, Russia has been the best nation in artistic swimming at the Olympics for twenty-five years, and the US Artistic Swimming Team recently qualified for the summer Olympic Games for the first time since 2008. 

Vicki Valosik is a writer, a Masters synchronized swimmer, and an editorial director and writing instructor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. She is the author of Swimming Pretty: The Untold Story of Women in Water. Her book is a deep dive not only into the history of synchronized swimming but into the history of swimming, period. It’s a fascinating and detailed account of something we take for granted. You may be surprised to find out, as I was, that there was a period of time during the Middle Ages when people didn’t swim at all, or that Benjamin Franklin was an expert swimmer, or that the pull between whether synchronized swimming is spectacle or sport has been a constant throughout its history.

As the author discovered during the research for her book, the history of swimming and the history of synchronized swimming are inextricably intertwined, but they are also connected to so many other things: the women’s movement, body positivity and bodily autonomy, American cinema and popular culture, physical education, lifeguarding.

I recently had the opportunity to chat with Valosik about her book, the people who championed the right of women to be in the water, and what swimming and synchronized swimming mean to her personally.

[KELP JOURNAL] This isn’t a book about synchronized swimming, although synchronized swimming is definitely a part of it. This is really the entire history of swimming. Clearly, so much research went into it. How long did it take you to write this book?

[VICKI VALOSIK] I’ve been working on it for a long time, at least a decade probably. I was getting a master’s in nonfiction writing at Johns Hopkins. And so I was always looking for stories, and I started poking around to learn more about the history of the sport. And then I realized that it was actually super interesting, and I started digging more. And then I realized that no one had really delved into the origins of it. There is a book, a great book by Dawn Bean, on the history of the sport in America [Synchronized Swimming: An American History]. She has two or three pages at the very beginning about what came before, but no one had traced this origin in detail and followed it through its many variations through vaudeville and through physical education and the fight to be taken seriously and all of these things. 

[KJ] I expected your book to be a history of synchronized swimming. But this is truly the history of all swimming throughout the ages and the history of women in water, from the time women were allowed to learn to swim at all, which I was shocked to learn wasn’t that long ago. Did this surprise you? 

[VV] Yes, that was surprising to me too. But I would say one of the things that surprised me early on and made me realize this is an interesting story was the constant tension between performance and sport that swimmers faced. I saw that immediately with Esther Williams not getting to go to the Olympics and her famous quote that stardom was her consolation prize for not getting to be an athlete at the Olympic level. But then I started learning about Annette Kellerman, the swimming vaudeville star, and saw, oh, the same thing—she was a champion athlete who found greater opportunity on the stage. The same was true for Agnes Beckwith, an endurance swimmer who performed in music halls in the 1800s. These women athletes weren’t accepted in the world of sport, so they turned instead to the world of entertainment where audiences loved them and they were well received. And then it becomes, “Well, are you a performer or are you an athlete?” And so seeing those tensions going back to the very beginning of women swimming in Western Europe and America was really interesting and surprising to me.

[KJ] You mentioned Annette Kellerman. You wrote about many women who broke barriers in swimming in your book, but she is my favorite. She invented the one-piece swimsuit! And I was shocked to read she was making $1,500 a week way back then, in 1910. I mean, I don’t know what that would be today. But that’s a lot. It’s a lot today. But the thing I love most about her is how body positive she seemed to be. And it really struck me how keeping women from learning to swim and dictating the kinds of clothing they wore were yet more attempts to control women and their bodies. Can you talk a little about that connection between swimming and suffrage? 

[VV] Definitely. So in this era, the 1910s, as women are starting to realize the necessity of learning to swim, the Annette Kellerman swimsuit is also coming out. So it’s now something they can actually swim safely in and wear, although at first only around other women—they wouldn’t dare wear them in public. Women started to get this sense of realization—not just through swimming, but through the growth of physical education—of how connected their physical health and empowerment were to their political enfranchisement and their political empowerment. These things were coming to a head in the exact same era. And then you had women like Kellerman who were extremely vocal about feminist issues. I never heard of her using the term feminist, but she clearly was, and suffrage was an absolute no-brainer to her. And I think it was to most of these women who were leading these swimming groups because they were so much more empowered. They were thinking about how to empower other women. And they had found this empowerment through being able to take care of themselves in the water, through getting rid of these clothes that were really meant to restrict women’s movement. 

[KJ] You write, too, about the impact of World War I.

[VV] To me, that was another interesting thing. You hear so much about Rosie the Riveter and how women were so empowered by all the new roles they took on in World War II. And I had never known that about World War I, but it was the exact same thing. I mean, women got suffrage right after the war ended because they had stepped up and shown we can take on all of these roles that no one thought we could do before. Scholars have written that suffrage was sort of a way of saying “thank you” to women for all they had done. So these things were just so interconnected. Getting rid of corsets was happening at the same time. Women were learning to swim at the same time. Physical education was growing at the same time. Annette Kellerman is on the screen and giving these lectures, and the lifesaving organizations are hosting water pageants with swimming demonstrations. So there was a confluence of physical and political emancipation at the same time.

[KJ] Something else I was surprised to learn was what a huge safety issue this was, the fact that women weren’t allowed to learn or encouraged to learn to swim. Women and children drowned disproportionately because they had to wait to be saved by men, who weren’t always around. They couldn’t save themselves. 

[VV] Absolutely. I think it was so interesting to discover, for example, Benjamin Franklin’s wife didn’t come along on the many long trips he made and the long stretches of years he spent in Europe. She didn’t go with him, because she didn’t know how to swim. It was such a deep fear for women, and for men too. I mean, a lot of men of that era didn’t know how to swim, but it was even worse for women because girls couldn’t just go out and play in the river and learn by trial and error and splashing around and being with their friends. They were cloistered in the home. Also, their clothing was so dangerous. If they fell overboard, they couldn’t just strip it off like men could. So it was definitely a huge issue, and the drowning rates were incredibly high. People like Commodore Wilbert E. Longfellow and Annette Kellerman, and early lifesaving programs, all did a tremendous amount to change that in the 1910s and 1920s.

[KJ] You write in your book about several male allies, men who advocated for the right of women to learn to swim, like Commodore Longfellow. He was a journalist who was so horrified by having to write so often about the drownings of women and children that he decided to do something about it. I find male allies are important to feminism overall because men are often the gatekeepers. Can you talk a little about the way male allies were important to women gaining the right to swim? 

[VV] Two immediately came to mind, which of course is Commodore Longfellow, who I have such a crush on. [laughs] He’s just such a feminist. Everything he did included advocating for women. He was like, “Okay, if the Red Cross won’t accept women lifesavers, I’ll go out and start my own sister organization and make my own corps of women lifesavers, and then they’ll be all ready when the Red Cross gets its act together.” He was a huge advocate of sensible swimwear. So he was key if you’re thinking about early allies who were instrumental in women learning to swim and being empowered. And then later allies in terms of synchronized swimming, Javier Ostos comes to mind. The IOC leadership couldn’t have been more against synchronized swimming, and Javier, who was the head of World Aquatics (known as FINA back then) at the time synchronized swimming was coming up for a vote, was a real ally, pushing for it over and over. And so, as you said, male allies are important because they’re the gatekeepers. If you’re trying to get into an organized group like the Olympics and World Aquatics, these male gatekeepers are critical. 

[KJ] Women had to fight for the right to swim like they had to fight for the right to vote. But it was far more difficult to be able to learn to swim for a person of color because of racial segregation and a lack of resources and pools. It was about access, and you discuss that in your book. Can you talk about that?

[VV] There’s so much to say about segregation and swimming. Jeff Wiltse has a whole excellent book. It’s called Contested Waters, and it’s all about segregation in swimming pools. I didn’t get into it too much, but you definitely can’t talk about swimming in America without talking about that. But at the same time, I wanted to try to show that these things were happening, like there were water ballets going on at the Harlem YMCA, and even in segregated summer camps, there were these same activities going on to a lesser extent because there was lesser access. I didn’t want that to be ignored in the book, because as I wrote, these Black youth leaders and recreation leaders were just as concerned about making sure their young charges were safe in the water and had fulfilling opportunities. They were just much more limited in what they could do and which children had access to these events. 

[KJ] Esther Williams. I don’t think we can talk about swimming in popular culture without talking about her. She’s so well known. I watched her movies when I was little. But I was surprised to learn she was an Olympic hopeful and that, although she “swam pretty” and was an incredible athlete, she wasn’t really a synchronized swimmer, was she? Because she was always the centerpiece, surrounded by synchronized swimmers. Is that true?

[VV] Yes, exactly. I found some interesting articles from the ’50s, when the sport was taking off, where some women in the sport were actually, like, “Don’t compare me to Esther Williams. What we do is a lot harder.” So she definitely was never trained as a synchronized swimmer. There were whole classes and groups and lessons and clubs and competitions going on, this whole world that she was not a part of. She was a part of the competitive speed swimming world. But then she became totally associated by the public with the sport of synchronized swimming that was growing alongside her fame. But, yeah, she was the centerpiece, and there were often synchronized swimmers all around her. She did do some synchronized swimming moves in her movies, but in a pretty basic way.

[KJ] But she did do a lot for the sport, to bring more attention to it.

[VV] Absolutely. She made the water so appealing, and so many women and girls were like, “That’s the most glamorous thing I’ve ever seen. I wanna do that.” And so she helped popularize the sport, for sure. And swimming too. I found newspaper clippings to both effects, like, “Hey, the local swimming class is full of Esther Williams wannabes,” and same thing for synchronized swimming classes.

[KJ] So another surprising thing I learned from reading your book is how dangerous the sport can be. You wrote that Esther Williams suffered at least seven broken eardrums and other injuries. And you mentioned the movie Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken—it tells the true story of Sonora Webster, who was blinded by diving in 1931 when she hit the water with her eyes open and her retinas detached. And then there was the viral video of Anita Alvarez being rescued by her coach because she blacked out underwater. And I was surprised to learn that’s not super rare. Have you ever been injured? 

[VV] Thankfully, no. Just shoulder injuries. I’ve been kicked in the face before. [laughs] You get kicked a lot in synchronized swimming, but thankfully, not being at an Olympic or elite level when I get kicked, it’s not by an Olympian powerhouse three inches from my face. It’s by someone else in their thirties or forties, who’s probably three feet away. So thankfully I’ve never been badly injured. But I used to love swimming underwater laps, and I’ve been a little bit more hesitant to do it now that I know about hypoxic blackout. But, again, they’re doing this at such a more extreme level than I’ve ever been doing. Sometimes multiple underwater laps without coming up for air, which is just inconceivable to me. I do one, and I’m really proud of myself, so…

[KJ] Speaking of the Olympics, what are your thoughts on the 2017 name change from “synchronized swimming” to “artistic swimming”? 

[VV] I’m not a fan of the new name.

[KJ] Me neither.

[VV] I have to accept it. I think what bothers me most and always will is the way it was done. Coming from the heads of World Aquatics and the IOC, these two guys who didn’t do the sport just handed down this dictate: “You’re gonna change your name. What’s your new name gonna be?” It’d be different if the athletes all came together and said, “Let’s come up with a new name,” and then they voted on it, and I didn’t like it. I’d say, “Oh, well, we live in a democracy.” But it wasn’t a democratic decision at all. But also, I feel like “synchronized swimming” is just so catchy. As soon as it was coined in 1934, it so well captured what that kind of swimming looked like. Now there are new kinds of routines where things are not perfectly matching the whole time, so some people argue that it’s a better fit for the way the sport is moving now. But, yeah, it will always be synchronized swimming to me, for sure.

[KJ] It is catchy. I like the alliteration of it, and I feel like, to me, it seems more athletic than “artistic swimming” does. I think “artistic swimming” takes away from how athletic it really is.

[VV] That’s a great point. I’m glad you mentioned that. People in the sport have come to accept it now after several years, but the initial visceral response was that it does not sound athletic to use the term “artistic” when we’re talking about a sport. We’ve tried to move toward being more objective in our scoring. How can you be objective with art? That was the biggest initial negative response because, yeah, we fought so hard to be seen as athletes, and this just detracts from that.

[KJ] So you’re a Masters synchronized swimmer yourself. Can you tell us a little about where you’re from and whether that had any influence on your love for water and swimming?

[VV] Sure. I grew up in Nashville, in the suburbs, and it’s a landlocked city. We’d go to the ocean for vacation in Florida and go to swimming pools sometimes, and I loved being in the water. Oftentimes the swimming pool at the hotel was the highlight of the vacation for me. But I would say I really got into swimming in college when I took swimming for my PE credit. And it was then that I learned the proper strokes, not just how to not drown, but actually how to swim laps and things. And I did dance growing up. I did the trifecta—the tap, ballet, and jazz—that a lot of little girls do. So those two things came together later in life when I started synchronized swimming.

[KJ] And can you tell us about your relationship to water?

[VV] I feel like a lot of times when people describe something they love, they say it’s the closest thing to flying. And for me, swimming is like flying. Once I learned synchronized swimming and gained that bodily control in the water, just being able to have this feeling of so much more freedom in the water than I have on land, to go any direction I want, upside down, right side up, is magical to me, honestly. The one exception being I can’t breathe, of course, but otherwise I feel like I can do so much more in the water than I can on land. I don’t think of myself as a sporty person, so having this thing I can do physically is wonderful.

[KJ] And you touched on this a little bit, but why did you settle on synchronized swimming? Did you try other water sports?

[VV] Growing up, I never thought of myself as an athlete. And in fact, I sort of hated sports. So I wasn’t seeking out a sport; I just discovered it through more of the lens of enjoying dance and thinking, “Okay. I bet I would enjoy synchronized swimming if I tried it.” So then I discovered, hey, I’m not anti-sports; I found this sport that is for me. And finding a team sport that was really collaborative and communal, that was really fun for me. And it’s a never-ending challenge—to learn the routine, write the routine in a way that works, that you have the right amount of oxygen when you need it, that you’re shifting in patterns at the right times. And to learn all of that, I feel like it keeps my mind young, but also I really enjoy that group aspect of it. So I hadn’t gone out seeking a water sport. I never tried water polo or anything else like that, but when I discovered it, I knew I had found my sport.

[KJ] You mentioned the team and the collaboration. Do you find there’s anything different or special about the community, the kinds of people who are drawn to this sport? 

[VV] I would say the common denominator among all of us is an absolute love of being in the water. I could count on any of my teammates if I wanted to go swimming anytime, go to the beach, go to the ocean. There’s always someone who’s going to be into getting in the water. And in fact, I was looking through pictures the other day, going back through all of these pictures over the years with my team, and I found one where I went with two of my teammates to mermaid camp at Weeki Wachee. And from the same night, after we’d been at mermaid camp in the water all day, there are pictures of us in the hotel pool at night. That is so typical. We were in the water all day, and what did we choose to do all night? Play in the hotel pool. 

[KJ] So what do you think, if any, are the obstacles or challenges that women face today with respect to synchronized swimming or to water sports, if any? 

[VV] I think, honestly, now it’s not so much about women as it is about the public not having familiarity with how hard the sport is. Like you said, it’s surprising that people get injured. I was surprised because who would think that? You go flying through the air and land in water—how could you get hurt with that? So it’s really deceptively hard, and part of the mandate is to make it look like it’s not hard. So I think the biggest challenge is that most people in the public aren’t familiar with or don’t have any frame of reference for how difficult it is, because most people have never tried it. Most people have had to sprint from A to B at one point in their lives, and they know what that feels like, but they don’t know what it feels like to be out of breath, underwater, upside down, and doing those things. So I think that’s actually the biggest hurdle. It doesn’t necessarily have to do with who’s doing the sport, men or women. It’s just the unfamiliarity with it and it being hard to see the effort going into it.

[KJ] What do you hope readers will take away from your book? 

[VV] I hope it will help synchronized swimming not be seen as such a niche sport. What I learned while researching and then while writing was that the history of this sport is the  history of swimming. There’s no way to separate the two. And that it’s also a story of women’s empowerment and how integrated it was into so many things, how critical it was to the development of women’s physical education, and what a big role and interplay there was constantly between these things and the performance aspect that enabled and encouraged more and more women to learn to swim. So it’s more mainstream and much more a part of the fabric of our culture than it seems.

Vicki Valosik is a writer, a Masters synchronized swimmer, and an editorial director and writing instructor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. Her book Swimming Pretty: The Untold Story of Women in Water was published by Liveright Publishing, an imprint at W.W. Norton, in June 2024. 

Leanne Phillips lives, reads, and writes on California’s Central Coast. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Kelp Journal, and The Coachella Review. She earned an MFA in fiction from UC Riverside’s Palm Desert program in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts.


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