Commentary: Vancouver native in synch with her sport

Commentary: Matt Calkins

By Matt Calkins, Columbian Sports Reporter

Published:

 
photoKaty Wiita, 17, learned quickly what it was like to be away from home for the first time.

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Sure, it’s easy to say that synchronized swimming isn’t a sport behind Katy Wiita’s back. But what about when she’s staring you down with makeup on her face, Knox gelatin in her hair, and a glittery performance costume on her torso?

OK, bad example. Still, there are plenty of athletes with Wheaties-box potential who will defend the Vancouver native’s pastime.

For six weeks earlier this year, Witta and the rest of the United States national synchronized swimming team worked out at the Olympic training center in Colorado Springs. And while weightlifters and wrestlers would wrap up their practice sessions after two or three hours, Wiita wasn’t even halfway through her daily routine. Finally, after eight hours of sculls, eggbeaters and lifts, she and her teammates were allowed to leave the pool.

Never had someone who can bench press 700 pounds seemed like such a wuss.

“Everyone is always shocked,” said the 17-year-old Wiita, who attended Catlin Gabel in Portland while living in Vancouver. “Other athletes are always telling us ‘I can’t believe you put that much into this.’ ”

Ten years ago, Wiita’s mother, Kaycee, missed the deadline to sign her daughter up for advanced swimming lessons and enrolled her in a synchronized swimming class instead. For Katy, it was love at first Knight (a common synchro position ... duh) and she has dedicated her life to it since.

Steadily improving each year, Wiita fell just short of making the U.S. junior national team in 2010, but later earned a score that allowed her to try out for Team One — the top squad in the nation. Figuring it would be good experience, but never expecting to be one of the nine swimmers to make it, she went ahead and auditioned.

Shortly after, her name was called as the youngest member of the U.S. national team. Her throat still requires lozenges from the scream.

“I was holding my breath the whole time they were calling names,” said Wiita, who can hold her breath for two minutes. “And they were doing it in alphabetical order, so I was going to be last. And then I just started freaking out.”

Her mother did, too. But for more than one reason.

Not only did Katy becoming a national team member mean that she would have the opportunity to compete in the 2012 Olympics, it also meant that she’d be moving to Indianapolis to train full time. Kaycee had long been preparing herself to part with her daughter when college came around, but now the separation had been bumped up two years.

So a family discussion ensued, concerns were expressed, and then a consensus was reached — Katy was off to Indiana. After all, you can never count on a second chance for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Wiita says she has surprised herself with her self-sufficiency over the past year, although there were a few lessons to be learned. For instance: Make sure the dishes are clean before you leave for a six-week trip, because there could be trouble if the dishwasher breaks down mid-cycle, as evidenced by the moldy plates and glasses that greeted her upon her return.

But other than that, things have gone swimmingly.

Wiita just returned from the Pan-Am Games in Guadalajara, Mexico, where the U.S. finished second behind Canada. In two weeks, she will be competing in the U.S. Olympic Trials in North Carolina, again hoping to be one of nine to make the team.

Sleep generally isn’t hard to come by when you train for eight hours a day, but Wiita admits that anxiety about the trials can make shut-eye elusive some nights.

“I’m nervous,” she said. “I’m training all the time even though it’s supposed to be my off time.”

OK, a few quick tidbits about synchronized swimming.

Only females can compete in the Olympics, and according to Wiita, an all-girls sport can occasionally “get a bit catty.”

She has seen expensive costumes thrown in the trash can out of spite, head caps pulled off mid-practice, and added that “we’re all so close together that if you’re mad at someone, technically you could kick them and get away with it.”

But most of the national team’s time is spent in solidarity — such as listening to the “Rocky” theme before a competition, watching movies together, or spending the whole night cleaning because someone’s parents are coming to visit.

Right now, Wiita’s primary focus is on international competition. But down the road, she’s hoping to receive an athletic scholarship from a school like Stanford.

Yes, an athletic scholarship. Synchronized swimming is a sport.

Now will you please let them practice their “Swan Lake” routine in peace?

Matt Calkins can be contacted at 360-735-4528 or matt.calkins@columbian.com