Nose clip, hair gel and synchronized aching muscles

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Nose clip, hair gel and synchronized aching muscles

"She needs a nose clip," Kim Min-joo told Ryou Mun-hee in a husky voice. She was talking about me.

A nose clip is the antithesis of beauty. As a kid, if I were splashing in a swimming pool and saw another child wearing a nose clip, I always wondered, "Why?" I seemed to be able to swim underwater just fine without water shooting up my nose and drowning me. Besides, the way the nose clip clenches your nostrils shut looks painful. Not only does it distort your face into an odd shape, it distorts the voice: a nose-clip wearer sounds funny and nasal. We're talking serious nerd-ville here.

"She needs a nose clip," Kim Min-joo repeated to Ryou Mun-hee in a husky, funny and nasal voice.

Ms. Kim, 19, was helping Ms. Ryou with my first synchronized swimming lesson. I was floating on my back in a swimming pool, trying a basic move called "the scull." If it sounds like some kind of medieval torture, that's because it was. My hands ached from clenching my fingers shut while arching the tips backwards. My arms burned from wiggling back and forth. My lungs hurt from all the water I was snorting. I was working hard but going nowhere fast. Enough.

I surrendered; it was time for the nose clip.

Ms. Kim, an Ehwa Womans University synchronized swimmer, offered me hers. A used nose clip. Great. Fortunately, the instructor, Ms. Ryou, had an extra one. She leaned over from the edge of the pool and handed it to me. I pinched my nostrils shut and slid the clip into place.

Ms. Ryou was one of Korea's first competitive synchronized swimmers. When I first called her about lessons, all she asked was, "How well can you swim?"

"I'm not a strong swimmer," I replied, a la Martin Short in that classic Saturday Night Live bit from 1984.

No mention of nose clips. Or hair gel, either. I learned afterwards that synchronized swimmers plaster their hair with liquid gelatin in competition to look as lovely as petals floating in the water. In Korea's swimming pools, on the other hand, a mandatory swimming cap keeps everyone's hair in place.

Synchronized swimming can be traced to the early 1900s, when Annette Kellerman began performing "water ballet" inside the glass tanks of the New York Hippodrome. Ms. Kellerman made headlines in 1907 when she was arrested in Boston for indecent exposure - she was wearing a one-piece bathing suit, scandalous at the time.

From those celebrated beginnings, synchronized swimming made its way into the Summer Olympics in 1984, with solo and duet competitions. Soon after, solo was dropped and replaced by eight-member teams.

Synchronized swimming may have a reputation for being an exhibition of beautiful, scantily clad women, not a sport; but I learned quickly, and painfully, how integral athleticism is. Swimmers are judged on moves with names like "thrusts" and "boosts." They use eggbeater and whip kicks to stay above the water. Above all, they cannot touch the bottom of the pool, which in competition is a minimum of nine feet deep.

Ms. Ryou met me poolside at the Jongno YMCA. She was kneeling by a mat, counting as her students did sit-ups. She wore loose-fitting pants and a shirt. Everyone else was in bathing suits. We stretched, then got in the pool for 40 minutes of laps.

Ms. Ryou was one of the first group of Korea's synchronized swimmers, who in 1983 trained in the United States. Korea has yet to win an Olympic medal in synchronized swimming, but consistently ranks in the top 10 teams. Ms. Ryou began coaching in 1987, and left Korea to accompany her husband to New Zealand in 1993. She returned to Korea in 2000 and has started coaching again.

When Ms. Kim, a former student, heard Ms. Ryou was back in town, she quickly re-established contact with her coach. Another student, Kim Ji-hyun, enrolled after her mother saw an advertisement. "I don't really like swimming, but I like synchronized swimming," the 11-year-old said.

The other student, Kim Ryou-mi, was Ms. Ryou's 6-year-old daughter. "Before I had Ryou-mi, I always said I want a daughter to make into a synchronized swimming star. I'm one-third of the way there."

After laps, Ms. Ryou brought out a plastic bottle. The first move I learned was the scull. The plastic bottle is gripped between the ankles to keep the legs afloat while you float on your back. The movement of the arms makes you move, the shape of the hands determines direction. Cup the hands, and you move feet first. Bend the hands backward, you move head first.

Once the nose clip was on, and I was no longer drinking chlorinated water, I could concentrate on sculling. I thought to myself, "I will not inhale water. I am a petal. A ballerina." But no matter how much I flailed, I could not move headfirst. Kim Min-joo gave up and just pushed me. Feet first was easier.

As I strained and huffed, Kim Ryou-mi sculled past me effortlessly, laughing all the while.

The next lesson - the leg lift. While on your back, you bend one knee until your foot is even with the other knee, then you extend the leg straight up into the air, then return to the starting position. Ms. Ryou gave me a large flotation device, but even with it, my arms ached from holding myself up. I stopped midway across the shallow end and stood up to rest my arms. Ms. Ryou said in horror, "You cannot touch the bottom of the pool!" I had broken the cardinal rule of the sport.

Finally, I learned how to hold an upside-down position. We propped our calves against the edge of the pool. I exhaled and leaned backwards, watching the bubbles rise up. When my head hit the back of the wall, I kept my elbows against my side and my arms perpendicular to my body. After counting to 10, I had to come up for air. The 11-year-old next to me came up at 30. "Now go back for 15!" Ms. Ryou told me.

Two hours later, fingers aching, I left the pool, vowing that I would no longer make fun of swimmers who use nose clips.

Getting started

Equipment the pros use: Nose guard and hair gel.

Equipment amateurs use: Nose clips, empty plastic bottles and float rings.

Routines are five-minutes long. Swimmers may spend up to a minute underwater without coming up for air.

Ms. Ryou will start adult lessons in the spring. For more information about lessons at the Jongno YMCA, call 017-310-2234.

Warrior rating (1 to 5): 4

by Joe Yong-hee

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