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Sync or Swim

The General wears many hats. One is teaching English to athletes in Beijing. During the Olympics back in August, she casually mentioned she tutored a talented diver. He ended up winning a gold medal. (Oh OK, he’s that talented.)

She meets once a week with fencers in the very western part of Beijing, near the BMX venue. And every Tuesday, she meets with a group of synchronized swimmers sequestered in the south.

I’ve attended a couple of the classes. Both groups have fun kids. And I feel for them trying to grasp English – because my Chinese is downright buhao (no good).

I’d love to photograph these students’ lives at their sports academies, but getting access to a Bob Knight practice back during his Indiana days might have been easier. None of the coaches want distractions, which apparently includes me.

It also includes these classes, which the coaches look down upon as a waste of time, time better served by even more training. It wasn’t surprising to hear many of these girls talk about life after years of non-stop sports. They dreamed of eating whatever they craved and having free time for themselves.

One of The General’s best and most inquisitive students invited us to watch her and her teammates during a competition this past weekend. We happily accepted.

One thing that makes me laugh and cringe is the long titles used in China, for both people and places. (Just because the title is long doesn’t mean it’s more important, please.) This event was held at the Yingdong Natatorium of National Olympic Sports Center, one of the small handful of pools used during the Games.

Sitting inside the venue was a little creepy, only because the layout is nearly identical to the Water Cube. But no Michael Phelps. Or his mother. Or Strazz kicking ass, photographing them together.

There was mild security, which I casually breezed by with members of The General’s class. I finally had guanxi (connections).

Acting perfect is, in my opinion, such a tired Chinese ideal. Ironically (or sadly), I think this is why they often perform so well in synchronized swimming. Be like everyone else. Don’t be unique. Follow the flock. Don’t lead it.

When The General arrived before the semi-finals, I had to help her spot her own class because she couldn’t figure out who was who. They all looked like everyone else.

It was fun watching these young ladies perform. Not so much because I’m a fan of synchronized swimming, but because I could root for them as individuals. I know these athletes outside of their sports life. I’ve seen them when they’re normal kids, laughing and giggling while trying to pronounce foreign words. (They also seem to really enjoy my sad attempts at Mandarin.)

As much as I love sports, I want these kids to grow up and be successful in something other than sports. They’ve been doing this so hard for such a long time. I’d love for them to enjoy life as interesting and unique individuals who are wonderfully imperfect.

  • Amelia Phillips Hale - April 25, 2009 - 1:11 pm

    These images really sing to me in many ways, some of my favorite from you during this trip. I can feel your connection with these women.
    I can say from being a competitive gymnast for so long, that the intensity of the sport life can be quite consuming, structured, and defined…
    I can also say that I learned a lot from it and managed to find a way to carve my own path with bits and pieces taken with me and some left behind. Not exactly the same type of sport, but I think there is hope for your imperfect wishes.

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