Noe Valley Voice March 1999

Noe Mermaids -- No Joke!

By Dodie Hamblen

If you think sychronized swimming is a Saturday Night Live skit, think again. San Francisco's very own, nationally ranked Merionettes are alive and kicking. They made a big splash at their season premiere last month at Balboa Pool, with at least five Noe Valley girls among the 35 costumed swimmers skillfully pointing their toes at the rafters.

"If you liked Esther Williams, you'll love this!" says Ellen Burns, a Whitney Street resident whose 10-year-old daughter, Sarah, has been swimming with the team for 21/2 years. And while your kids may not know Esther Williams from Johnny Weissmuller, they'll still enjoy cheering for the home team.

The Merionettes, who first jumped off the deep end 42 years ago, form one of the oldest synchronized swim clubs in the United States. Linda Rosen, president of the group's board of directors, confirms that "over the years, a lot of national champions have come from the San Francisco Merionettes."

Synchronized swimming, once called water ballet, has been in the International Olympics since 1984. Says Merionettes coach Erika Thorson, "In 1996, nine out of ten Olympians came from the Bay Area. It's very popular here, and it's becoming bigger every year."

The kids -- the club is open to both boys and girls -- range in age from 7 to 18, and practice in four age groups. The team receives free practice time at San Francisco Rec and Park pools, including Balboa on San Jose Avenue, and Garfield Pool at 26th and Harrison -- the two closest indoor pools to Noe Valley.

The team's rigorous practice sessions cover basic swimming strokes and choreographed routines -- in and out of the pool. Beginners learn "easy figures," ballet-style movements, which can be performed alone or in group competition. In the meets, they swim in teams of eight and perform their routines to music piped into the pool through underwater speakers.

"It's a little hard learning the routines," says Sarah Burns, a fifth-grader at Clarendon Alternative School. "But it's fun. Once you learn them, you feel good."

By age 8, the Merionettes begin to compete with teams from Sacramento, Walnut Creek, and Santa Clara. (Synchronized swimming is judged similarly to ice skating or gymnastics.) Club members then go on to vie for state, regional, and national championships. Last year's competitions took team members as far away as Buffalo, N.Y., and Hilo, Hawaii.

"They're such incredible swimmers, they are just phenomenal," says Ellen Burns. "They even learn life-saving skills."

Burns says the Merionettes keep Sarah and her Noe Valley pals busy, with hour-and-a-half practices three nights a week. "But they still have time to hang out together on 24th Street."

She and Sarah credit 11-year old Alexa Rogers, who lives on 22nd Street, with enticing the other Noe Valley girls to the Merionettes. "Alexa just sort of dragged them along, and they got into it," says Ellen Burns.

According to Merionettes president Rosen, the kids will reap many rewards from the experience. Synchronized swimming brings "self-esteem and poise, as well as a sport they can enjoy for a lifetime," Rosen says.

Thorson, who's been with the team for nearly 20 years -- as a swimmer for 10, a coach for 9 -- echoes Rosen's sentiments. "I credit everything I've done in my life to the Merionettes. It's been great for self-worth." She says juggling a grueling practice and competition schedule with schoolwork taught her valuable time management skills, which helped her succeed in college and graduate school.

But the best thing about sychronized swimming? "It's a blast!"

Membership dues for the San Francisco Merionettes, which cover the cost of instruction, run from $55 to $140 per month. For more information, contact Jan Rogers (Alexa's mom) at (415) 824-7017.