By REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — Recent Niskayuna High School grad Carolyne Guo’s solid grades helped her beat a lot of competition for spot in the incoming freshman class at Northwestern University. She knows exactly how she stayed motivated: Her mother would threaten to stop taking her to synchronized swimming practice if she couldn’t keep up with her studies.
Her eight-year synchronized swim career, which included seven trips to national competitions, was a twist no one — not even Guo herself — expected.
Guo never wanted to be a synchronized swimmer. She might’ve tried dancing, or softball, or skipped the sports altogether. But when she was 10 years old, her mother signed her up for synchronized swimming. She’s still not entirely sure why — but it doesn’t really matter anymore.
“After a couple of weeks of summer camp, I fell in love with it,” Guo said.
She practiced 12 hours per week at pools all around the Capital Region with the Sculpins club synchronized swimming team in Troy until earlier this month, when the national competition in Federal Way, Wash., concluded. Guo took ninth place with her solo routine.
“I always wanted to make the top ten,” she said proudly.
Solo routines — which are part of synchronized swimming competitions, even though there is no one to synchronize with — are another activity Guo didn’t think she wanted to try. The three-time co-captain loved being a part of her team, whose members performed as a large group, as well as in trios and duets. But when her coaches pushed her to swim alone, she resisted.
Eventually she tried it, and again, she was glad she did. After one of her routines at a national competition, the president of USA Synchronized Swimming approached her.
“You light up the pool,” she said, complimenting Guo’s technique and self-confident smile.
Challenges like these made Guo’s swimming experience truly worthwhile. “It taught us a lot, like how to grow up — not just as an athlete, but as a person,” she said.
The relationships she forged with her team and coaches were the driving force behind the learning experience. A prank her teammates played on her helped Guo find the strength to take criticism in stride.
While learning a trio routine with two longtime teammates, Guo found herself making unusually clumsy mistakes. Her coach was displeased, and the practice was a long one for Guo, who repeatedly got into trouble for messing up the routine.
Later, another of the trio, a friend and teammate of seven years, confessed: Guo’s the two teammates had been changing up the routine in small ways just to be mischievous.
Guo looks back on the prank with a laugh. Being co-captain, she said, often meant covering for her teammates. She was used to taking the brunt of her coach’s toughness.
“My role is pretty much to get yelled at,” she said, describing a co-captain as a sort of liaison position.
Sometimes, together, they instead turned the pranks on the head coach, an intimidating figure during practice.
The swimmers poked fun at their coach, Sara Neitzel, during a celebratory banquet. They presented her with a set of laminated signs bearing some of her drily humorous catch phrases, such as: “No!” and “Again!” and “That was detrimental to society.”
After Guo’s last swim, the coach flipped the prank, presenting her with a similar sign that said: “You made me proud.”
Moments like those — Guo says she could fill notebooks with her stories — made tough practices, long drives to competitions and exhausting physical effort worth it.
“Sometimes we forget why we do it,” Guo said. “Then you have those moments when you’re like, oh, this is why.”