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Synchronized Swimming: Ohio State synchro success begins with recruiting talent and personality

The Ohio State synchronized swimming team gathers for a cheer prior to the Zero Waste Dual Meet on Jan. 13, 2018 at Ohio State. Credit: Courtesy of Ohio State Athletics

A young synchronized swimmer sent a video to Ohio State demonstrating her talents. The video was filmed in a home pool — an unusual setting for a recruiting video — but everything else seemed standard. The recruit went through three or four maneuvers encompassing her overall skillset.

When the routine was completed, she swam out of the frame and re-entered in a canoe.

That recruit was Asia Luke, who went on to swim at Ohio State for four years and contribute to two national championships.

Ohio State head coach Holly Vargo-Brown said as soon as she saw the canoe appear, it became clear what needed to happen next.

“I have to have that kid on this team,” Vargo-Brown said.

Synchronized swimming is a sport of uniformity. Athletes are recognized for mirroring the actions of those around them. In the water, unity and synchronicity are necessary to succeed.

But when building the most consistently dominant synchronized swimming program in the country, 30-time national champion Ohio State looks for athletes that are far from uniform.

To find swimmers from around the world capable of carrying on the program’s rich tradition, Ohio State seeks athletes who display distinct personalities capable of enhancing the team community in addition to raw talent.

“If everybody’s exactly the same it doesn’t work as well,” Vargo-Brown said. “It’s when they’re different and they figure it out … Those are the very best teams.”

Synchronized swimming has a small talent pipeline that begins to manifest itself early on in swimmers’ careers.

“The girls start young,” Vargo-Brown said. “Sometimes as young as 6 … Because it’s such a small sport you start to see some names start to hit the top soon.”

Though the pipeline develops early, it becomes narrower and more refined as swimmers grow older. Players move from across the country to specific programs known for producing college and Olympic-level talent. This is where Ohio State begins to pinpoint its top recruits.

“As [the athletes] get older … they will move out and train with a better program,” Vargo-Brown said. “We tend to get a lot of our athletes from those better teams.”

These programs include the U.S. National Team as well as a few reputable programs on the West Coast. Getting athletes to abandon the West Coast to swim in Ohio would be a challenge, but Ohio State has one selling point that encourages the athletes to overlook distance and dreary weather: success.

No other team can boast a resume as strong as Ohio State: 30 national titles, 14 Olympians and 110 All-Americans.

“Truthfully because [the championship banner] says 30 national championships over there a lot of times people will come to us,” Vargo-Brown said.

Since Ohio State does not struggle to find athletes that want to compete for the team,the decision often comes down to what types of young women the team believes can foster an environment of success.

There’s no single quality that marks a potential contributor to the team’s winning culture, yet Vargo-Brown cited the canoe video as a time when she knew immediately that a potential recruit demonstrated the type of character the team wants in its athletes.

“Original, thinker outside the box, confident … I always refer back to [Luke] as a person that ended up being a great Buckeye,” said Vargo-Brown, who is in fourth season as head coach and competed for the Buckeyes from 1981 to 1984.

To the athletes, the team’s dedication to creating a diverse, supportive group of personalities is as important as its reputation.

“I noticed [the supportiveness] on my recruit trip,” senior Monica Velazquez-Stiak said. “Just watching how they practiced and worked together was really inspiring to me and really drew me to the program.”

The team’s history of success and the culture it strives to cultivate are connected. Players want to join a program in which they will have the opportunity to win, and a team with a sense of community contributes to this opportunity.

“What I love about this current year’s team is how diverse everybody is,” Vargo-Brown said. “Diverse personalities of young women. I think when you embrace that and you allow that to come together some really special stuff happens.”

If the team’s success in the water is indeed a product of the synthesis of its swimmers’ personalities, Vargo-Brown’s assessment has been proven correct thus far. The Buckeyes most recently won the North Regional Championships to improve to 22-0. They will next compete at the national championships on March 28.

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