History of Synchronized Swimming

At the turn of the 20th century, synchronized swimming was known as water ballet. The first recorded competition was in 1891 in Berlin, Germany. Many swim clubs were formed around that time, and the sport simultaneously developed in Canada. As well as existing as a sport, it often constituted a popular addition to Music Hall evenings, in the larger variety theatres of London or Glasgow which were equipped with huge on-stage water tanks for the purpose.

In 1907, Australian Annette Kellerman popularized the sport when she performed in a glass tank as an underwater ballerina in the New York Hippodrome. After experimenting with various diving actions and stunts in the water, Katherine Curtis started one of the first water ballet clubs at the University of Chicago, where the team began executing strokes, "tricks," and floating formations. On May 27, 1939, the first U.S. synchronized swimming competition took place at Wright Junior College between Wright and the Chicago Teachers' College.
In 1924, the first competition in North America was in Montreal, with Peg Seller as the first champion.

Other important pioneers for the sport are Beulah Gundling, Käthe Jacobi, Marion Kane Elston, Dawn Bean, Billie MacKellar, Teresa Anderson, Gail Johnson, Gail Emery,Charlotte Davis, Mary Derosier, Norma Olsen and Clark Leach. Charlotte Davis coached Tracie Ruiz and Candy Costie, who won the gold medal in duet synchronized swimming at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.

In the 1940s and 1950s, before men were banned from national competitions, Donn Squire and Bert Hubbard were important male synchronized swimmers in the USA.


In 1933 & 1934, Katherine Whitney Curtis organized a show, "The Kay Curtis Modern Mermaids," for the World Exhibition in Chicago. The announcer was Norman Ross, who introduced the sport as "Synchronized Swimming" for the first time. The term eventually became standardized through the AAU, but Curtis still used the term rhythmic swimming in her book, Rhythmic Swimming: A Source Book of Synchronized Swimming and Water Pageantry (Minneapolis: Burgess Publishing Co., 1936). See a photo of Motherwell's Rhythmic Swimming Display, 1946.

Curtis made Synchronized Swimming an officially recognized sport by the AAU in December of 1941, but would herself be transferred overseas in 1943. She was the Recreation Director of the Red Cross under Generals Patton & Eisenhower, during which time she produced the first international aquacade in Caserta, Italy. She was the Director of Travel in post-war Europe until 1962. She was officially recognized along with Annette Kellerman by the Helms Hall of Fame in 1959 - Curtis as with the primary development of Synchronized Swimming. In 1979, the International Swimming Hall of Fame inducted Curtis with similar accolades.

A National A.A.U. champion swimmer, Esther Williams, would also largely popularize synchronized swimming during WWII and after, through (often elaborately staged) scenes in Hollywood films such as Bathing Beauty (1944), Million Dollar Mermaid(1952), and Jupiter's Darling (1955). In the 1970s and 80s, Ft. Lauderdale swimming champion Charkie Phillips revived water ballet on television with The Krofftettes in The Brady Bunch Hour (1976–77), NBC's The Big Show (1980), and then on screen with Miss Piggy in The Great Muppet Caper (1981).