Culturephile: A Competitive Synchronized Swim Team in Irvine

Former Meraquas competitor, Riona Tsen, now coaches younger girls and performs. Photograph by Emily J. Davis

An Olympic sport since 1984, artistic swimming fuses aspects of swim, dance, and gymnastics in routines performed to music. The Meraquas program is open to girls and boys ages 8 to 18, and it includes classes for beginners, training for competitive athletes, and opportunities for older swimmers to perform in water shows. Cal State Fullerton sophomore Riona Tsen tells us more about the sport. A former Meraquas competitor whose team won first place in the Senior National Championships and second in the Junior Olympics, both in 2021, she coaches younger girls and performs.


What are the basic moves and positions?

One of the most artistic parts of synchro are the lifts, which are a lot like cheerleading stunts. You have one flyer and a base and a pusher. We’ll launch someone into the air. We have hybrids, which is where our legs are in the air and heads are upside down. Those are really fun. Then we have our arm shows where our heads are out of the water. That’s our breathing time. We’re being very performative with our arms, and our legs are obviously working really hard. I don’t think people realize that we’re constantly treading water because we’re not allowed to touch the bottom of the pool at any point during our routine. So if our faces are above the water, our legs are working to keep us afloat, and if our legs are above water, our arms are working.


Aside from the fitness aspect, what do you think it takes to be a competent artistic swimmer?

I definitely think having a cooperative spirit is really important. Having a good synergy between all of the swimmers is important because then you’re able to make adjustments on the fly—not everything is going to go 100 percent perfectly. Especially during competitions, there are a lot of factors involved, and it’s important to be able to make adjustments to be successful.


How important is costuming, makeup, and hairstyling?

We call that our artistic impression. We’d have glittery, rhinestone suits for that little bit of bling. Especially here in Southern California with the sun, you get a little bit of shimmer that’s always nice to see. And we have a headpiece, which is attached to our hair, that matches our suit. The makeup pulls it all together. It’s just the performance aspect. You want to look pretty as well as doing movements that are pretty. In ballet, you have the big tutus and costumes. In theater, you have the costumes for all the actors. We’re putting on a performance, even if we are in the water.


The Meraquas do shows for corporate events, parties, and even weddings. What’s that like?

Water shows are really fun. I’ve performed mainly in Southern California. A recent one was a party in a backyard pool, very casual. It’s a lot of fun for everyone involved. They’re fun to watch, being able to see it up close. My favorite one was for a little girl who was turning 5 or 6. We got to dress up like little mermaids.


Do you get respect from competitive speed swimmers?

One hundred percent we do. We swim alongside them and water polo teams, and I think there’s a mutual respect that goes on among all the water sports. A lot of time we’ll see them walking by watching us as we’re practicing our routine. You can tell there’s a level of respect they have for us. It’s mutual because a lot of us are also speed swimmers on the side.

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