The Ohio State synchronized swimming team has high standards.
Without them, the program wouldn’t have been able to produce more than 100 U.S. Collegiate All-Americans throughout its history or capture 29 national titles, the most recent of which came last season.
To maintain that nearly unprecedented track record of success, OSU coach Holly Vargo-Brown said she looks for high-character recruits to don the scarlet and gray.
On Thursday at the Bill and Mae McCorkle Aquatic Pavilion, Vargo-Brown officially inked the newest Buckeye that met those standards to join the team for its forthcoming season: an 8-year-old named Verena.
“With 29 national championships in this program, it is very important to us the quality of individuals that we bring a part of us,” Vargo-Brown said at the introductory press conference. “And Verena fills those qualities very well.”
Verena appeared on the coach’s recruiting radar by way of Team IMPACT, a national organization that matches children who face life-threatening and chronic illnesses with local collegiate athletic teams.
Team IMPACT reached out to the university’s athletic department near the start of the semester, saying it had a child with interest in joining an aquatic team.
The timing, Vargo-Brown said, could not have been more perfect.
Just a short time before being contacted about Verena’s interest in becoming a Buckeye, members of the synchronized swimming team’s junior class approached their coach about collaborating with an organization that facilitates similar partnerships to those of Team IMPACT.
“This is student-athlete driven completely,” Vargo-Brown said. “You hear a lot of bad things (about student-athletes) but this, this is pretty cool.”
Community service is an integral part of the synchronized swimming team. Each year, the swimmers are required to “give back a day” and spend at least 24 hours volunteering around Columbus.
They love doing those sorts of activities, like spending the day cleaning up Goodale Park, junior swimmer Lorrain Hack said, but they wanted to go one step further.
“We, as a team, wanted to do something that was more meaningful where we could actually see the impact we were having on people and watch them grow,” she said. “We just wanted something that was more long term that we could get to know her and get more invested with someone.”
That someone happens to be Verena.
Verena has a condition called Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a group of genetic disorders that cause her joints to separate very easily — multiple times a day even — according to her mom, Ashley.
EDS can be excruciatingly painful and the frequent separation of joints puts organs at a greater risk of rupturing, Ashley said.
It wasn’t until September 2013 that they knew exactly what condition had been affecting Verena.
She was born six and a half weeks early, weighing just three pounds, Ashley said. Doctors knew something was wrong at birth, but specifically what evaded them for years. In search of answers, they went to the Cleveland Clinic and Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, but these visits only left them with more questions.
“It was finally when we got referred to genetics,” Ashley said. “They tested her and said, I had EDS, which I didn’t know it. Because of me having it, I gave it to her. So does my mother. None of us knew we had it.”
EDS comes in different degrees, with Verena’s being much more severe than that of her mother and grandmother. Every day, she feels the effects of living with the syndrome.
“Her legs do get tired very easily, so she does have to use a wheelchair sometimes,” Ashley said. “She goes through pain management because she does have a lot of pain.”
Because of her fight with EDS, Verena has struggled finding the sense of normalcy that many others experience, Ashley said. But there is one safe haven where Verena can venture to find the normalcy she so often lacks: the pool.
“With this disease, swimming is the best because it keeps the buoyancy off the joints, so you’re able to move easier in the water,” Ashley said. “She’s just taken a natural hit to the water and she just loves it.”
They expressed interest in partnering with Team IMPACT after a child who lives nearby Verena and is paired with OSU women’s hockey team told Ashley about it. Within the week, Verena was accepted by the organization. Soonthereafter, she was paired with the synchronized swimming team.
Vargo-Brown said after the team met with Verena and her family, both parties realized the relationship would work.
A real Buckeye
After agreeing on Verena joining the team, she began to become incorporated in events that swimmers participated in.
Verena was on hand for an OSU football game inside Ohio Stadium, where she hung out with the team and was able to be a part of the homecoming parade with the girls. She also was present at the program’s Sync Cancer fundraiser.
“It makes me feel really grateful to know that I am making a difference in someone’s life at a deeper level,” Hack, the student-athlete, said. “It’s not just a surface-level connection.”
On Thursday, which also happened to be her 8th birthday, Verena officially became a part of the team. After signing her letter of commitment, she was escorted into the locker room, where she was presented with her personal locker, decked out with OSU synchronized swimming attire — a scarlet backpack, a national championship towel, goggles, as well as her own swim cap.
From there, Verena and the team spent time where the birthday girl felt most comfortable: in the pool.
Throughout the 20 or so minutes in the pool, a smile that extend like ripples in the water permeated from Verena’s face.
“She has to struggle to do things most people don’t, such as writing. Even walking can be a chore,” Ashley said. “For her, to be able to get in the water and do something with other people, that is normal for her — it’s unexplainable.”
Ashley paused to wipe the tear that began to trickle down her left cheek.
“You can’t put a price tag on that,” she said.
Having Verena as a part of the team isn’t just something that will benefit her, Vargo-Brown said. The coach said she and Ashley will work out a set time, about once every week or two, where Verena comes by and spends time with her new teammates. As part of the Team IMPACT mission, Verena will be a part of the team for two years. However, her impact has already been felt after just a few months, Vargo-Brown said.
“She’s like a little sister already to them,” the coach said. “The stresses of being a student-athlete, particularly at a Division I university, are just enormous. When you can add some extra quality thing like this, it helps them manage. It gives them a breather. It puts things in perspective.”
Hack agreed with her coach, adding that getting to spend time around someone with such a different background helps make sense of everything. Verena, Hack said, is someone the team can strive to be more like.
“We don’t know what it’s like to have health impairments,” she said. “It’s not normal for us, so to see her and see how strong she is and that she is still enjoying life as much as she is brings a lot to us. It gives us something to work toward.”
After she and her teammates got out of the pool, Verena stayed behind with her grandmother and mom to dry off while the others went into the locker room to change, with the smile on her face still shining.
A few moments later, Verena headed toward the locker room to say thanks to her new teammates, for what she called her best birthday present to date. When she opened the door, nearly on cue, the swimmers began singing her “Happy Birthday,” her smile only intensifying as the song rang out. Near the back of the locker room a birthday cake and balloons rested.
When the song concluded, a member of the team offered some parting words, telling Verena how excited the team is to have her aboard, before asking her to make a wish.
The newest member of the OSU synchronized swimming team closed her eyes, facing the white cake with scarlet and gray frosting, while her sisters watched, to make a birthday wish.
There were no candles to blow out, which is perhaps fitting, as Verena’s light has just started to shine for her teammates.