River City Magnolias make a splash with synchronized swimming

A local group is making synchronized swimming cool again.

Every week this summer, roughly 12 women wear petaled flower caps and nose clips to scull, lift, and do eggbeater kicks in the downtown YMCA and Randolph public pools. The women make up River City Magnolias, a retro-inspired amateur water ballet team, the only one currently in the city.  

“It’s wonderful exercise,” said Karen Kersting, a VCU doctoral candidate and founder of the group. “Everyone comments on how good and tired–in a good way–they feel after [practice].”

Kersting became a synchronized swimmer in elementary school in her native Wisconsin, where she said the sport is more popular than in Virginia. “I loved to swim, but I never loved to do laps,” she said. Synchronized swimming, or synchro as its often called, was the perfect alternative.

Her participation in the sport dwindled over the years until, one day after relocating to Richmond, she watched a video of New York-based synchro swimming team, the Brooklyn Peaches:

“This would be an amazing thing [to do]” Kersting immediately thought. Richmond already had burlesque shows and roller derby teams–synchro swimming would fit perfectly.

So in early June, Kersting took to Facebook to see if others would join her. One of them was Kersting’s friend, Erin Reichhardt.

“I have known Karen for a few years, and every summer I would end up watching her display her synchro swimming talents in the water when we were just hanging out in a pool or at Hadad’s,” she said. “I was always interested in learning how to do those moves, but I never took it seriously.”

Reichhardt became serious when Kersting discussed creating a team. One of the appeals for Reichhardt was that, unlike kick ball and roller derby leagues, water ballet didn’t require as much athleticism or skill. “This kind of sport seems to have more of an even playing field since it’s not as popular, you know? Less intimidating–like we are all starting around the same place,” she said.

Kersting said that, like Reichhardt, most of the women who joined were new to the sport. “We’re very much starting from the beginning,” she said when the group held its first practice in late June.

Reichhardt said, “We were so jazzed to learn moves in the water that we just ended up playing around the first few times and talked a lot about where we saw the group going.”

The group has since progressed to learning moves and perfecting routines with occasional guidance from more experienced synchro swimmers. Even as the practices become more difficult, the team still enjoys itself. “It’s really like the fun I had as a little girl doing somersaults in the pool and making up dance routines with my friends–it’s coming back to me in my adult life,” Reichhardt said.

The group is now working towards performing a four-minute routine with matching outfits sometime in August. Although Kersting said there is no public performance planned, she is thinking about ways to make the group’s work more accessible, such as performing it at several public pools.

Based on the popularity of the team so far, Kersting said she’d like to make classes year-round. But even if water ballet continues to grow, Kersting won’t allow River City Magnolias to become just another workout regimen. “I want to very much keep the fun, fluffy, vintage feel to it,” she said.

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photos by Anne Aurelia Lewis

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Nathan Cushing

Nathan Cushing is a writer, journalist, and RVANews Editor.

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