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November 22, 2014

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The Sunday: Desert Mermaids give us a glimpse into world of synchronized swimming

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

The Nevada Desert Mermaid synchronized swim team practices Tuesday, March 11, 2014.

Desert Mermaids Synchronized Swimming

The Nevada Desert Mermaid synchronized swim team practices Tuesday, March 11, 2014. Launch slideshow »

About the Desert Mermaids

Synchronized swimming is a mix of gymnastics, ballet and swimming — all set to music. It’s figure skating in water. Visit nevadadesertmermaids.com or call 728-5766 for information. There is a recreational program for beginners and the first lesson is free. Because of pool rental, it costs $80-$200 monthly to participate.

This story was first published in the March 16 issue of The Sunday, a sister publication of the Sun.

Linda Tannenbaum never got a chance to compete for an Olympic medal as a competitor, but don’t be surprised if she helps bring one to Nevada as a coach.

Tannenbaum, a U.S. Synchro Swimming Hall of Fame member who retired before synchronized swimming debuted in the 1984 Olympics, is grooming some of the most successful young swimmers in the nation through her Summerlin-based Nevada Desert Mermaids club. Among the standouts: Emma Burns and Hannah Halverson, who in 2013 beat more than 40 duets to win the U.S. Age Group Synchronized Swimming Championships, and Hannah Heffernan and Viktoria Mills, who have earned a spot on the national training squad after being identified as two of the nation’s top 11- and 12-year-old swimmers.

What does it take to succeed in synchro? Tannenbaum offered a look at some of the tricks of her trade.

What they put in their hair

Unflavored gelatin powder and hot water create the mixture used for “Jell-O head effect” that slicks back a swimmer’s hair for competition. The mixture is applied with a paint brush and held together with hairpins, keeping hair off of a participant’s face in competition. “You don’t want hair in your face. It would be distracting to the performance,” Tannenbaum said. It takes some swimmers as little as a 30-minute hot shower to get the mixture out; others wind up going to school with the gelatin still in their hair.

They are in shape

Tannenbaum tells of a group of pro football players attempting to tread water using the egg-beater — legs moving in opposite direction — technique. “Those guys were exhausted getting out of the (pool).” Swimmers can’t touch the bottom of the pool or the wall during routines lasting up to four minutes, so being in shape is essential. They have strong, well-toned quads and more endurance than most teenagers. Their arms are also toned from the sculling technique, the hand movements propelling the body.

Where the boys aren’t

The 40 Desert Mermaids are all girls. Rarely does a boy join the club. Although the sport is predominantly for females, accomplished male synchronized swimmer Bill May lives in Las Vegas and frequently helps coach the team. May and partner Kristina Lum were the world’s top mixed duet pair in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but they never reached the Olympics because mixed-pair events were not offered. They won national championships and medaled in the Goodwill Games.

Everyone hears music

Julia Epstein was mesmerized by the music for the synchronized routines, even hearing it underwater during practice with a speed swim team sharing the pool with the Mermaids. Routines stay in flow with music thanks to an electro-voice speaker in the water, allowing swimmers to hear the beats under and above water. “They were having fun. That’s where I wanted to be,” said the eighth-grader who made the transition to synchronized swimming.

Strip performers as coaches

Tannenbaum spent nearly seven years swimming in “Splash” at the Riviera. Other coaches perform at “O” at the Bellagio or “Le Reve” at Wynn. Coaches have earned international medals and have found post-sport careers working in shows on the Strip.

$100-$300

These aren’t your typical swimsuits. Everything with synchronized swimming is in sync, including the outfits worn to perform. And you can’t buy them at the local mall. The Desert Mermaids work with three seamstresses on designing and making their competition outfits. Materials are purchased at a craft store. Each suit costs $100-$300, and most girls have more than one. Girls also wear heavy layers of waterproof makeup that matches the outfits.

4 hours

Practice makes perfect: The Desert Mermaids practice about four hours a day, five days a week. It’s a labor of love. The athletes consider one another best friends. “They have a sense of dedication and discipline, just like any competition sport,” Tannenbaum said.

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