Dublin’s synchronised swim team: ‘We’ve done lots of swimming but this is so different’

A mix of complete beginners and experts have spent six weeks training for charity show

A mix of beginner and expert synchronised swimmers train for a charity show that will take place on September 28th at the Clontarf Baths in Dublin.

 

The morning is still and dull around the Clontarf Baths. The sky is porridge grey thanks to a curtain of mist hanging down so low you can barely make out the Poolbeg stacks across the water. There’s a quiet hum of industry from Dublin Port, the xylophonic clanking of cranes in the gloom. All is silent. Until it isn’t.

“She kicked me!” shouts Declan Harte to the absolute hoots of the 16 women with whom he is sharing the pool. He and wife Siobhán O’Brien are in the deep end practising their portion of the synchronised swimming display that will happen here on Tuesday, September 28th.

They are both in their 60s and though they have been swimming all their lives, they are novices at the synchronised side of things. A fact with which Declan’s, eh, midriff, is now all too painfully familiar.

‘We are here regardless of the weather’: Dublin’s first synchro swim fundraiser is to take place in Clontarf. Photograph: Alan Betson
‘We are here regardless of the weather’: Dublin’s first synchronised swim fundraiser is to take place in Clontarf. Photograph: Alan Betson
Coach Aoife Drumm on poolside with swimmers Michelle Kelly, Deirdre Mahon and Auveen Bell. Members of Ireland’s first synchronised swimming fundraiser trained over six weeks for their performance. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times
Coach Aoife Drumm on poolside with swimmers Michelle Kelly, Deirdre Mahon and Auveen Bell. Members of Ireland’s first synchronised swimming fundraiser trained over six weeks for their performance. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

Together, the couple have tried a move which involves them both tumbling backwards out of a leg-lock clinch as Abba’s Gimme Gimme Gimme plays over the stereo. There was a tangle of ankles as they pulled apart and in the blender churn of the water, Siobhán didn’t quite get her foot placement correct. She had the whole of Dublin Bay to aim at but missed.

And now everyone in the pool – Declan included – is shrieking with laughter. “Gimme, gimme, gimme!” shouts Siobhán. And they all fall about the place again. Welcome to the world of have-a-go synchronised swimming. Armbands and sad faces not allowed.

Synchronised swimming is basically dancing in the water while keeping time with your partners. If you think Ginger Rogers had it hard going backwards in heels, try it on your back with your knees pointing at the sky and a gallon of the Irish Sea in your eyes.

Synchronised swimming training in Dublin bay. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times
Helen Mooney, Gen Costello, Cathy Moore, Hilary Warren McCaughey, Olwyn Lee, Aine O’Keefe and Lillian Hunt get in formation. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times
Synchronised swimmer Declan Harte does a high kick. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times
Synchronised swimmer Declan Harte does a high kick. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

“We’re here regardless of the weather,” says Donna Cooney, whose idea this all was. “It’s nice and calm this morning and it was glorious yesterday but we’ve been here in the rain and everything.”

The idea came about during an aqua-aerobics class a couple of months back. Well, sort of. Cooney and a few of her friends had done a full-moon swim a week or two before and by happenstance had all turned up in the same black swimsuit. Someone said they looked like a synchronised swimming team and when she told this story to her aqua-aerobics teacher Aoife Drumm, a plan started to come together.

Cooney and a few other women from the area normally run a tennis tournament to raise money for St Francis Hospice in Raheny but Covid nixed that in 2020 and 2021. This seemed like a fairly out-there replacement but Drumm said that if they could gather up enough willing victims, she would train them. Up until that day in the aqua-aerobics class, they had no idea that Drumm was a synchronised swimming teacher as well as everything else.

“I didn’t know how many people would be interested but we said we’d give it a go. We booked the pool here for six weeks, Aoife took us on as a teacher. We had no idea where we were going to get the swimmers from – I think we had about half a dozen at the start. So I put it on Facebook and got the word around and we’ve ended up with 21 swimmers.”

If you think Ginger Rogers had it hard going backwards in heels, try it on your back with your knees pointing at the sky and a gallon of the Irish Sea in your eyes. Photograph: Alan Betson
If you think Ginger Rogers had it hard going backwards in heels, try it on your back with your knees pointing at the sky and a gallon of the Irish Sea in your eyes.  Deirdre Mahon and Michelle Kelly in action. Photograph: Alan Betson
Grainne Kyne, Donna Cooney and Ana Quigley share a laugh in the water. Photograph: Alan Betson / Irish Times
Grainne Kyne, Donna Cooney and Ana Quigley share a laugh in the water. Photograph: Alan Betson / Irish Times

For the most part, none of them had done anything like this before. Declan Harte actually learned to swim in this pool as a kid, in the old Clontarf Baths back in the 1960s. But he had the same relationship with synchronised swimming as the rest of us – he might watch five minutes of it every four years when the Olympics are on and that would be the height of it.

“I would have played water polo here as a kid in the freezing cold but nothing like this. We’ve done lots of swimming but this is so different. The timing is so hard to get right. Swimming is always about being long and relaxed, whereas this is about your core and keeping the muscles tight and all that.”

“And hoping you don’t get kicked when you’re trying a backwards tumble!” chimes in his wife.

The swimmers are trained by coach Aoife Drumm alongside main organiser Donna Cooney. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times
Synchronised swimmers Lillian Hunt, Cathy Moore, Hilary Warren McCaughey and Aine O’Keefe prepare for a session in Clontarf Baths in Dublin. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times
Two synchronised swimming teams work on their moves. At back: Trish McNamara, Donna Cooney, Ana Quigley and Grainne Kyne. In front: Deirdre Nahon, Auveen Bell and Michelle Kelly. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times
Two synchronised swimming teams work on their moves. At back: Trish McNamara, Donna Cooney, Ana Quigley and Grainne Kyne. In front: Deirdre Nahon, Auveen Bell and Michelle Kelly. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

Drumm marches up and down the pool deck counting in time – “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 SEVEN, 8. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, SEVEN, 8. Bounce! Pull! Turn! Pull. Listen to the music!”

There’s a group of six ladies practising their routine to We Will Rock You. They swish along in good time together for most of it but then one of them turns one way while the other five turn the other way and everyone collapses into a fit of giggles. Everyone except teacher Drumm.

“Okay, this is where I have to be the party-pooper teacher and tell you all to listen! We’re outside so this isn’t shouting! It’s one-two-three-turn-one-two-three-pull. Come on, go again. To stop yourself sinking, squeeze yourself like you’re going to have to wait three hours for the toilet. It’s something you can all relate to!”

In the middle of the pool, a young woman in her early 20s is practising. Like, seriously practising. She is very obviously no novice at this stuff. It’s like watching a native speaker recite French poetry while the rest of the class is learning how to conjugate verbs. Caitlin Hayter is a radiographer in the Bons Secours hospital in Glasnevin. She is also a proper, actual synchronised swimmer from Port Elizabeth, South Africa.

“I came to Ireland in November 2019 to look for work experience,” she says. “A couple of months later, the pandemic hit so it meant you couldn’t really meet anyone or get to know anyone. But I found the Dublin Synchro page on Facebook and got in touch with Aoife and she told me about this. It’s so much fun.”

“The thing about it is, it’s very popular in other countries,” says Cooney. “In America, they do it a lot in retirement homes. It’s something you can do in your 90s. A lot of people don’t take it up until their 60s. People who find it difficult to move on land get into the water and suddenly that buoyancy gives them the ability to do things they wouldn’t normally do. It’s working with a team, it’s putting on a show, it’s all these types of things. It’s great.”

You can support the event, in aid of St Francis’ Hospice and the Irish Hospice Foundation, at idonate.ie.

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