Most people remember the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta for a pipe bombing and a dramatic one-legged vault landing by Kerri Strug. Not Michele Bennett.
Though it received far less attention than the American gymnasts that year, the U.S. synchronized swimming team dominated, earning three perfect 10s in the technical round followed by a flawless freestyle routine that secured gold. It simultaneously mesmerized and motivated a young Bennett.
“It was very inspiring,” she recalls. “I was a little dancer and gymnast, and I said, ‘I want to do that instead.’ So I immediately signed up.”
More than two decades later, Bennett is still in the pool performing graceful leg maneuvers alongside other swimmers, in harmony with both their movements and the music as co-founder of the Rose City Raindrops.
Portland’s only artistic swimming team (“synchronized” was officially dropped from the name in 2017) was formed seven years ago as a way for athletes experienced in the uncommon sport to connect and stay in practice. But the Raindrops are more than just a club for people who want to keep up their skill set. The troupe regularly performs elaborately choreographed water ballets in a wide variety of settings ranging from weddings to company retreats to film studios.
Bennett, for instance, has bobbed around Puget Sound for an Y La Bamba music video; swam in the Columbia for a Blind Pilot shoot; and extended limbs from the Willamette for a Blazers promo.
“We do fundraisers and birthday parties,” says Bennett. “We just did this corporate incentive party for the top sales performers and they had to learn artistic swimming Dancing With the Stars style and compete.”
Like many performers, the Raindrops are emerging from an extended COVID hibernation. Pools, after all, were among the communal gathering places that remained off-limits for much of the pandemic. But as celebrations return to our social calendars, the swimmers are now back in their brightly colored bathing caps and matching sparkly suits, bringing some of that Esther Williams’ Old Hollywood glamour to all manner of events.
The team has anywhere between 20 to 30 active members at any given time, and their skill level ranges from recreational to former Olympian. There’s also a wide variety of ages, too: The youngest Raindrop is 18 while the oldest is still spinning and kicking at 78. In fact, Bennett stresses, synchronized swimming is one of the best sports to continue as you age because it’s low impact.
Ultimately, though, she hopes that the Raindrops’ appearances will expose more individuals to the activity and encourage them to give it a shot.
“I think it is a good fit for a lot of people, where maybe gymnastics is a little too intense and swimming is a little too boring,” Bennett explains. “It’s like, here it is! Right here! The perfect sport.”
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