Scottsdale synchronized swim team makes 30-year splash

Posted 6/1/20

Scottsdale Arizona Synchronized Swimming Team, which celebrated its 30th anniversary on May 17, will officially commemorate the occasion in the fall with a water show and team/alumni celebration.

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Scottsdale synchronized swim team makes 30-year splash


Scottsdale Arizona Synchronized Swimming Team, which celebrated its 30th anniversary on May 17, will officially commemorate the occasion in the fall with a water show and team/alumni celebration.

Former athletes, coaches, and parents of alumni are being sought to get in touch with the team to be added to the list of invitees, according to a press release, also asking for people to submit any memories, personal stories, and pictures to assist with documenting and gathering team history and memorabilia.

Although the Covid-19 pandemic has delayed the 30th anniversary celebration, anticipated fall events for all alumni, past and current parents, coaches and team participants will be a time for Scottsdale residents and those from surrounding communities to watch the athletes perform with the non-profit association that is recognized by the City of Scottsdale and among five competitive teams and two university teams located in Arizona.

While the title of Synchronized Swimming recently changed to Artistic Swimming, called “Synchro,” the sport remains the same as participants continue to show off skills in aquatic choreography and athleticism.

Debuting in 1984, at the Olympic Games in Los Angeles, California, the sport described as “the most disciplined and difficult sports in the world,” mixes physical and creative abilities with “the grace of ballet, the flexibility of gymnastics, and athleticism of swimming.”

“Synchronized swimming or more recently known as Artistic swimming — called “synchro” by those in the sport — is a blend of meticulously coordinated acrobatics, swimming, and dance movements. Synchro requires tremendous grace, core strength, flexibility, breath control, split-second timing, and incredible endurance. Don’t be deceived by the glitzy performance and lipsticked smiles on the athletes’ faces — this sport is anything but easy,” said SAZ President Diane Nowak via email.

For 30 years, SAZ has taught young athletes necessary skills for synchronized swimming such as the importance of athleticism, health, humility, hard work, and community.

Many athletes are noted to have gone on to swim at the collegiate level while others were even selected to represent the country on the U.S. National Team, received invitations to participate in National Talent Camps, or Olympic Development Programs.

The team attracts swimmers Valley- and worldwide.

“I am honored and feel very lucky to have spent these past four years leading Scottsdale Synchro and helping many athletes set goals both in and out of the pool, while also working with city officials, parents, and board members. I am proud of the goals we have achieved together: coaches, athletes, parents and supporters, and of our great accomplishments,” said SAZ Head Coach Xinya “Olivia” Zhang in a prepared statement.

She was a member of the Chinese National Team and began her position with SAZ in 2016 after gaining a master’s degree in sports management at the University of Minnesota.

“I especially appreciate the legacy of the team. I know many of SAZ’s alumni have leveraged the perseverance and life skills they learned in synchro to become successful members of society and to impact the world in a positive manner,” she added.

Offering recreational and competitive options, local youths interested in joining the team can attend one of the summer camps, which are open to swimmers ages 6–12.

As years progressed, SAZ has grown as a highly-decorated, nationally-recognized competitive team that practices six days a week at McDowell Ranch Aquatic Center.

“It is truly incredible that so many families, over the past 30 years, have chosen to be part of SAZ and have allowed the team to play a role in developing their children as athletes and individuals,” said Birgit Schwickert, swim parent and SAZ board president.

“I know the team will continue to inspire our athletes in 2020 and beyond by providing life-enriching experiences and world-class instruction in a competitive, fun atmosphere.”

Meanwhile, Ms. Nowak stayed above water to answer the following questions about SAZ:

How many swimmers did the team start off with 30 years ago?

Sandy Gillett, who has since passed leaving a legacy to carry on, was the original founding coach of the Scottsdale Synchronized Swimming Team. Sandy had worked with a Mesa team when she decided to start the Scottsdale organization. Her daughter was the first official member along with swimmers who had taken introductory lessons through the City of Scottsdale Parks & Rec program.

The team was comprised of eight swimmers that first year practicing at Eldorado Aquatic Center. The original team was primarily recreational and competed only in the Grand Canyon Games. By 1994 the team had grown to 12 swimmers ranging in ages 9-22 and practiced 10-12 hours per week.

How many are on the team now?

Today, the Scottsdale Synchro (SAZ) team has 48 swimmers and 10 coaches led by Head Coach Xinya “Olivia” Zhang. The team trains at the McDowell Mountain Ranch Aquatic Center.  Currently, SAZ’s youngest team member is seven and the eldest just completed her senior year of high school. 

For more than 20 years, the sport of synchro has welcomed male athletes around the world. However, to date the Scottsdale team does not have any male participants. Boys often attend summer camps as the water skills learned through synchronized swimming are distinctively helpful for any person who will be in and around water frequently.

Can you describe the skills and talents needed for the sport?

Artistic swimming is a unique hybrid of swimming, dance and gymnastics combining a need for incredible endurance, coordination, and breath control skills. Plus, awareness and listening skills are paramount.

Artistic swimmers need to be aware and learn to have command over their own body movements; they need to be aware of others in the water around them; swimmers need the important skill of listening – for corrections from coaches, to music above and below the water in order to “synchronize” movements.

What are qualifications?

The skills of an artistic swimmer vary dramatically based on both age and competitive category. When a swimmer starts a synchro career, whether 7 or 13 they must be able to swim one length of the 25-yard pool without stopping at a minimum. The athlete also needs to be comfortable in the deep end of the pool.

Athletes who have body awareness are also successful early on; perhaps previous classes in dance, gymnastics, diving, or similar. And of course, speed swimmers are always welcome to convert. But, like with any sport, coaches identify the skills of the athlete and build upon basics. And, of course, attitude and an innate desire of the swimmer goes along way to reaching goals.

How rigorous is the sport?

As an artistic swimmer matures, skills are refined and exponentially enhanced. Swimmers are often vertical and upside down with their legs above the surface, performing spins, splits and other movements all which require exceptional tremendous training. Artistic swimmers are not permitted to touch the bottom of the pool.

They use arm motions (“scull” - treading water with arms, basically) and leg kicking (“eggbeater”) and depend completely on their own strength and stamina to perform a routine. Some swimmers can hold their breath for more than three minutes, but most synchro routines require no more than one minute of continuous breath-holding. Artistic swimmers are said to practice more than most other Olympic athletes.

Another very rigorous aspect of Artistic Swimming is that “team routines” include 8-10 swimmers; synchronizing that many people in the water, who half the time are upsidedown, is a huge challenge. Therefore, artistic swimmers need to cooperate with team mates to coordinate their movements, which requires many hours of practice to polish and make every movement look flawless.

Does there have to be a certain kind of music played to synchronize?

The music selection depends on the theme for a routine. For team and duet routines, the music is generally upbeat, while for solo routines, the music is usually more emotional and may have a special significance for the swimmer. Two speakers are used: one on deck (swimmers, judges and audience can hear), and an underwater speaker which swimmer can hear.

Is a choreographer needed?

Choreography really is an important part of the sport and what makes it artistic. A SAZ coach normally spends many hours planning and structuring routine choreography. Synchro choreography not only includes different kinds of arm and leg movement, but also pattern changes and “lifts,” some of which involve one or more swimmers doing summersaults, back flips, or other spectacular “flying” maneuvers up and out of the water.

Remember, all of the lifts and throws are executed without swimmers touching the bottom of the pool. Choreography is first taught by a coach and learned by the swimmer(s) on deck or in a dance studio. Arms are used to simulate leg movements in the water. Once a small section of a routine is learned the swimmer(s) transition to the water and duplicated the learned choreography and make the many necessary changes to accomplish in the water what the intent on land was.

How popular is the sport in Scottsdale?
Synchronized swimming is gaining popularity in the U.S. especially since the last summer Olympics in which the sport had received a lot of media attention. This has helped the team grow, especially the last three years. But is perplexing knowing so few residents are aware of the team.

How has the sport changed since its inception?
Artistic swimming has come a long way from its inception as “water ballet” in the Roman Colosseum, traveling circuses, and even Ester Williams’ performances of Busby Berkeley’s elaborate choreographies. Today synchro is an Olympic event and highly athletic. It is “faster, higher, stronger” and a sophisticated merger of artistic performance with Olympic level athleticism.

How is the sport locally and nationally going to be affected by the current “social-distancing” efforts?

As the world entered into spring 2020 and the number of COVID-19 cases continued to rise around the world, pools and facilities closed, competitions were postponed and things became uncertain. Keeping the team training together was never in question.

To keep SAZ’s spirit alive, Coach Olivia organized the coaching squad to lead virtual workouts for all athletes.  And, as the quarantine continued, she looked for opportunities for our Scottsdale athletes to stay connected together, and train with other artistic swimmers around the country and world.

During the two-months quarantine period, Scottsdale athletes have trained with US Junior National Team swimmer Juliana, collaborated with other US clubs, including Seattle Synchro and MAC Synchro, and attended first-ever Worldwide Artistic Swimming online workouts that were led by World famous Olympians from 20+ countries.

For more information, call SAZ President Birgit Schwickert at 512-299-6879.  To send pictures and/or personal memories or to be added to the team alumni email list reach Marian Clancy at

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