Danielle Wright finds the minority sport of synchronised swimming is filled with passionate, dedicated families looking for something a little different.
Synchronised swimming is often seen in music videos and films, on television commercials and in magazine adverts, as well as entertainment at popular events like the Auckland Fringe Festival. But, in spite of its glamorous and sometimes trivialised perception, it's a serious sport with serious athletes.
At the Glenfield Leisure Centre, a group of 8-18 year-olds are dedicated to the sport and practise sometimes up to five times a week for the North Harbour Synchronised Swimming Club. There are only six other clubs in the country.
There are two swimming categories available - competitive and recreational. Swimmers in the former group are working toward NZ Nationals, Australian Nationals, Oceania and World Champs, Commonwealth and Olympic Games. Recreational swimmers also take part in the two elements of "synchro" - routines and figures - but largely for fun and exercise.
The coaches, an international mix of South African, Russian and Korean, come from successful competitive synchronised swimming backgrounds and immediately you sense the seriousness of the sessions as one coach, Moon-Hee Kim, gets very animated, stamping her foot and shouting at the girls for being slightly out of time.
The girls respond with dedication and commitment to get it perfect the next time and one of the mothers tells me it's this discipline that is so beneficial to the girls, even out of the water - all are high-achieving in academic pursuits.
"It's a great sport for developing young women," says Bronwyn Stackpole, Harbour Synchro chairperson. "They practise working on their own as well as with one another, with a coach and, of course, the confidence needed to wear a swimsuit at that age in front of an audience helps with self-esteem."
Sequins and make-up are also motivators for signing up, and I'm told the sport has helped a few dyslexic members on the team, who credit the need to listen to directions and concentrate on many different things at once as helpful.
"Our girls also just want to do something different to what everyone else does," explains Stackpole, which seems admirable during the 'follow-the-crowd' teenage years.
Another coach, Natalia Pavolova, has a twin sister and both are well-known in Russian synchronised swimming circles.
She taps a stick with a silver spoon on the edge of the water so the swimmers can hear the beat in the water.
With toes pointed and arms outstretched, the team twirl in the water so gracefully, yet it's easy to see how athletic they must be to perform the routines - just treading water for that long would be hard enough.
"Girls who love the water and have done dance or gymnastics often come to synchronised swimming," explains Stackpole. "Many because of injury, or fear of injury, which sometimes seems a rite of passage in many sports."
As in any minority sport, the Bank of Mum and Dad has to support trips to compete at events around New Zealand and internationally, and it's no surprise the success of the team is reliant on the parents taking an active interest.
As we are talking, Moon-Hee Kim suddenly turns the music off and hops up and down in anger at the girls.
It's hard to tell if the girls in the pool can hear her words, but there is no mistaking her body language.
"One of them is her daughter," one mum proudly tells me.
Though at first I'm surprised by her outbursts, it is endearing that she cares so much about the girls progress that she's fighting for their attention like this. Later, I'm told she was a finalist for Youthtown Coach of the Year.
Synchronised swimming is more popular overseas and Stackpole says the countries with the biggest reputations are Russia, Spain, China, Canada, Japan, France and Italy.
With our nation's love of the water, and the benefits and grace of the sport, let's hope it becomes better known as an alternative after-school activity in the future.
Get in the swim
Find out more at northharboursynchro.co.nz or ph (09) 623 7233. The club offers two free, no obligation, lessons to anyone wanting to give it a go. If you decide to join the club, fees range from $50 to $270 per term, depending on hours swum. It's for children aged seven plus, who can swim and float, or adults.
Water ballet for adults
For a bit of fun, the Wet Hot Beauties will be calling up for the new season some time in July. This adult contemporary water ballet group has another "splashtacular" Fringe Festival event planned for February 2013, a deconstruction of Swan Lake.By Danielle Wright