When Shaina Dinsdale first moved to New York in 2013, she was told she could find anything. But she couldn't find a way to use her background in synchronized swimming. A friend of a friend connected Dinsdale with Team New York Aquatics, the LGBTQ-inclusive aquatic community, which she joined just to get some laps in.
Some time later, she was talking to a woman who happened to be a TNYA board member.
"I was saying to her, 'I love this club. I just wish it had synchro too,'" Dinsdale said. "Because they have water polo, they have diving, they have open water swimming and speed swimming. I just wished I had a place to coach. And she goes, 'Let's do it.'"
A week later, the TNYA synchro team was born. In the years since, the team has doubled in size and competed around the world, including at home in New York City, where TNYA is hosting the International Gay and Lesbian Aquatics Championship through Sunday.
We spoke to Dinsdale and fellow coach Shachar Keizman as part of Ask a Genius, our regular series of talks with brilliant people. This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.
What need were you filling with this team?
Dinsdale: We're a synchronized swimming team. And I think that's a big word. It's a team event. We give people the opportunity to swim as synchronized swimmers as a team. Most importantly, we also give men a chance to learn the sport, most of them for the first time in their lives.
We're one of the few and we've grown in scale tremendously in the past few years so we've obviously meet some market need that wasn't being filled.
Keizman: What stands TNYA apart from the other teams is we are an LGBTQ team. This is truly the core of the agenda of the team. The team must be inclusive. We take anyone, if your'e straight, you're gay, your're bi, you're lesbian. If you can swim with us, you're very welcome.
Dinsdale: When the team was started the one thing the board said to me is you have to accept everyone. What that means is we have people who compete and we have people who don't compete. You can come to any practice you want and we find a space for you and we make sure you feel like you're part of a team.
Is there a connection between LGBTQ culture & synchronized swimming?
Keizman: Synchronized swimming is one of a handful of sports that you are truly an athlete but there's also room for performance. It's not just how high you go or how fast you go. It's also how well you perform it.
To me, that's the angle — the connection between the gay world and the sport — it's so theatrical. Synchronized swimming really combines all of these aspects of me as a gay man. I love to perform. I love the stage and I'm an athlete. In synchronized swimming, I can bring all these together for a two-minute routine and I get to perform on all levels.
Dinsdale: You're going to make me cry.
What got you involved in the team?
Keizman: I got involved with TNYA about seven years ago through my college coach. He was on the team and I needed somewhere to swim on my spring break. He just suggested, "Why don't you go to a few practices with Team New York?" That really opened my eyes to a whole new world. I realized, wow, you can swim and compete and have a lot of fun. It doesn't have to be so serious. It can be, don't get me wrong. When I compete, I compete fully. But you can also be on deck and engage and socialize and create a whole new network and not just sit there and be so serious. It's really beyond the sport. We connect on so many different levels. We spend weekends together regardless if we're in the pool or not. Sometimes people ask me who my friends are and I say I have the team. This is my social network. I spend all my time with them.
Dinsdale: I started it because I missed synchro. I very much offered to coach because I had a gap in my own life. I think that first year someone sat down and sent out this survey to try to understand what our story line was a little bit. People filled it out and it blew my mind, the comments of why people joined the team, what everyone else thought was missing in their life and why synchro was the fit for it. We had someone saying, "I was getting older and I just felt like I needed to get my brain working in a different way and learning movements and counts." I had people that said, "I wanted to be a synchronized swimmer my whole life but men couldn't do it. Now in my 30s and 40s there's this opportunity. How could I resist it?" I think very quickly it was filling a place in everyone else's life.
Keizman: I truly think the common thread is being part of a group that cares for each other, that swims with each other, that communicates with each other. A lot of us come from speed swimming or regular swimming, which is a very individual sport. Even when you practice you don’t get to chat much. It's not a contact sport. You don’t have to work together as one unit. In synchronized swimming you have to move together. You have to move very close to each other. You have to perform in the same way in the same pace. You're not on your own anymore.
What has being part of the team taught you?
Keizman: I'm still working on the switch that I'm not on my own right now. I'm part of a unit. When you swim with the team it's like, OK, there's certain parts of the routine that I'm going to be on the bottom and someone else is going to go up. You need to know that it's their turn right now but I'm going to go just as hard as I can because I want us to be successful as a whole. Even if it means I'm underwater and no one sees me now. They'll see my teammate go up. This is our success. All together.
Dinsdale: I think I've learned a lot what it's like to be a gay athlete. It's opened my eyes to the privilege I had as a straight athlete growing up. You don't always see through someone else's eyes until you're really right there working with them. That's been a big eye opener for me in terms of the way you guys think through what you want to wear and how you dress yourself and what makes you feel confident. It's very different from me as a straight woman.
Keizman: Something we constantly talk about and constantly challenge is the role of gender in the sport. How do we perform as men? Why do women have to perform in a certain way? Do women always have to wear makeup when they perform synchronized swimming? We keep challenging ourselves: What's the role of men? What's the role of women?
Dinsdale: Our first year swimming when we were trying to figure out our bathing suits, everyone wanted to look alike. And it was like, "What bathing suit do we wear as men and women that will all look the same and what is everyone comfortable with?" We ended up with this one-piece 1920s kind of look and it was really fantastic. But we had lots of conversation about what will that look like on the women? Do the women want to wear it? What about the men? I think we have a lot of fun discussing, debating, learning about the different positions on the team and figuring out what works for us.
How do you afford this hobby?
Keizman: The team offers scholarships throughout the year for practices. Also, when competition comes, they will offer a special scholarship or a grant for that specific event. And the group that organizes the event will also offer some kind of scholarship opportunity or opportunity for financial support. Because we truly want to have anyone that is willing and committed and wants to compete.
Dinsdale: It's also a really important part of where we want to go to make sure this club is not only sustainable but inclusive. Water sports have not always been very inclusive because it is a very expensive sport. So we are trying to get sponsors. We are trying to get a regular amount of funds so we can offer more support. We shot a calendar this year as a team that was a hit. It was a fundraiser. We ended up donating all the funds to a youth shelter that supports LGBT youth because the team really wanted to make sure we were giving back. But we have been thinking, what are the standard fundraisers we can do? The other thing we do is shows. Those shows in the city, 100% of the funds go to the full club to make sure that this continues.
What makes it so expensive?
Dinsdale: Pool fees in New York are astronomical and frankly, the pool space you get for that is subpar. It's $200 a lane for an hour. If you're trying to get a six-lane pool, you're at $1,200 just for an hour. If you have a two-hour practice, it's really something. What we do actually is we'll just take up three lanes, which isn't an ideal way to train because then you're squashed and you're constantly trying to navigate that. That's also why they go to the public pools, because I think there the membership is $60 for six months, so $10 a month. But then you're competing with every person in New York City in the pool. And these guys (the team) aren't people you want to swim with. Their arms are flailing, their legs are flailing, people are going under the water.
What about swimsuits?
Dinsdale: You can do just a regular catalogue where you get something that's a little more fun. The first year, there was a woman that makes pole dancing outfits. She became our go-to synchronized swim outfit maker. Really good with clasps and bedazzled stuff. So she did ours. We actually have a swimmer on the team who has developed the ability to make bathing suits and it's kind of blowing my mind. This year she designed, created, sewed all of them. They look unbelievable and it gives you full artistic license at a lower cost.
How has the team grown?
Dinsdale: We had a team of 12 at the beginning. They trained one day a week. We did a season that was only 12 weeks long. Because it is a big commitment. You need a full team to show up together. We tend to have pool time on the weekends so you're also giving up part of your weekend for it. Now I think we're at about 24 people that come pretty regularly. We have Saturday and Sunday practice. We have an extra credit practice where these guys just go to public pool space, finding pools around town to practice. The commitment level's really gone up. Last year we did a 16-week season, so we've expanded it a little bit. This year has been full on since September. We're all looking forward to a break now, but it's been a good run.
Keizman: The beginning of the season, it's a bit more loose in terms of commitment. But once we have a goal, once we have a competition coming, that's when you have commit to it if you wish to. But the commitment grows because from season to season our skill level goes up. Shaina is pushing us to do harder and more complicated things. And just to try it on Sundays is not going to be enough. So we have to start meeting Wednesday night at a public pool and find creative solutions to find different pool space and make connections with different life guards that allow us to do our things in different places.
Dinsdale: You're very big charmers.
Keizman: (Laughing) We make things happen. And we see the results.
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Image: Team New York Aquatics