By Brance Arnold ’10 MA
Academics and athletics stand as the core of every great university and the University of the Incarnate Word is an embodiment of these traditions. Synchronized Swimming is a unique sports program that is technically demanding and reflects these two disciplines, continually raising them to a level of excellence. UIW’s current Synchronized Swimming team is determined to capture a national championship in 2012.
The team’s coach is a former Olympian and team members are held to the highest of competitive standards. Head Coach Kimberly Wurzel-LoPorto competed in the Olympic Games held in Sidney, Australia, and she brings that very kind of dedication, focus, and prestige to UIW’s program.
“I competed in the 2000 Olympic Games and that is something that less than one percent of the population achieves,” she said.
Among her many accolades, she is a six-time Senior National Team member, a five-time national champion, a two-time Junior National Team member, the Athlete of Year in U.S.A. Synchro in 2000, and an eight-time All-American.
From Santa Clara, Calif., Wurzel-LoPorto’s experience stretches back to early childhood. LoPorto’s father was a World Masters Swimmer and inspired her to take to the pool as a toddler. Her siblings were also swimmers. At the age of nine, her father suggested she try synchronized swimming and the rest is history.
“I loved it because it’s an art but you have to be focused because it is such a demanding sport,” she said.
She competed in synchronized swimming for 16 years before transitioning to the role of coach. However, the transition was not immediate. In 2001, she moved to San Antonio and performed as a synchronized swimmer for Sea World’s VIVA show, where she swam with Beluga whales and Pacific White-sided dolphins.
Soon after, UIW hired Wurzel-LoPorto, first in exchange for completing her degree in psychology, and then full-time after graduating.
“For the first three and a half years, I was a student here and I went to class during the day and coached either in the early morning or late in the evening,” she said.
Wurzel-LoPorto built the program from scratch, recruiting members by passing out fliers on campus. She began with only three swimmers who held minimal experience. “One swimmer was a UIW soccer player, one a ballerina, and the third an athlete who had tried synchronized swimming but hadn’t practiced for six or seven years,” she said.
In the program’s first season, UIW ranked 17th in the nation. However, the following year, the team achieved 6th place in the country with a roster of seven athletes. After the program’s fourth year, the team achieved 3rd place nationally, only behind Stanford University and Ohio State University, and has maintained that status to this day.
Since the program’s inception, not only has its prestige grown, so has the team’s roster. UIW’s 2011-12 team consists of sixteen members from the Ukraine, Japan, Canada, and the United States. Freshman, Inga Gillyer, who was on the Ukrainian Olympic team and ranked 2nd in her country, heard about UIW’s program and came to the university in the fall. She hopes to compete in the 2020 Olympics. The roster also includes Suki Fujise, a UIW senior and a Junior National Team member, whose hometown is Nagoya, Japan.
“It is great to have an international influence, it helps the momentum of the team,” said Wurzel-LoPorto. “There is a pride that runs through and through, and it’s not just American pride, it is Incarnate Word pride. They are so proud to be members of this community and members of this school. A lot of them want to stay here in the community and live here after they graduate.”
With the team’s diversity there also exists a unified determination to be the best in the nation.
“Our team is the most cohesive we’ve ever had,” Wurzel-LoPorto said. “They amaze me when they get in the pool, and I have pretty high standards for them. Being an Olympian, I am very much a perfectionist and it has to be done a certain way, and they exceed my expectations.”
The discipline of the team is palpable considering they often practice as early as 5 a.m. during the week. Armed with this unwavering discipline and feverish preparation, this season UIW’s Synchro team faces a challenging schedule competing against high caliber teams.
The team performs solo, duet, trio, and team routines. Every routine consists of a theme that the team members choose themselves.
“I let the swimmers choose the theme and music because the more they enjoy the music they are swimming to, the better they’ll swim,” Wurzel-LoPorto said.
As one of only nine varsity synchronized swimming programs in the country and the only collegiate program in Texas, the team often travels by plane to compete. The team hosts fundraisers to help support the program. Wurzel-LoPorto said they have held a water show and silent auction, as well as, a South Zone Clinic to mentor aspiring swimmers of all ages and provide instruction for coaches with their respective programs.
Though synchronized swimming is not an NCAA-sponsored sport, Wurzel-LoPorto’s team is held to the same Division II standards as every other sport on campus and has the complete support of the university.
“We are extremely blessed because we have the support of everyone on campus,” says Wurzel-LoPorto. “They are backing us through this time so we can get back on that emerging sports list.”
Due to the fact that the NCAA requires 20 varsity teams or more and there are only nine in the entire nation, these programs have lost their emerging sports status. Wurzel-LoPorto’s team, however, remains undaunted and maintains their pursuit of excellence.
“We struggle with other universities recognizing what a great sport this is and to add it on a varsity level,” she said. “Nothing has changed for us and we continue forward.” The program’s recruiting also remains aligned with NCAA standards. Wurzel-LoPorto seeks the most elite athletes in the nation. She now finds the university’s reputation has reached athletes around the world and those swimmers are now contacting her about being on the program’s squad.
“They’re sending me videos and interviewing me to have a spot on our team,” she said. “We are a household name now.”
Team members are as passionate as their coach about being on the squad. Junior Brianna Andreychuk from Canada, who has been a member of the team for three years and has competed for 13 years, said she loves being on the team.
“We have great team chemistry and all work really well together,” Andreychuk said. “Our season is going to be very busy, but we have a very good chance at moving up in placement this year, and even winning Collegiate Nationals, which is very exciting.”
Enjoy bonus content about UIW’s Synchronized Swimming program below:
Wurzel-LoPorto agrees that the team’s chance of winning a national championship this year may come to fruition,
“The great thing is we’ve closed the gap between the overall points, so we’re really hoping this year to get first or second,” she said. “My athletes deserve it, they really want that national championship.”
Some of her former athletes have continued in synchronized swimming after graduating from UIW. Lyssa Wallace, in 2011, competed in the Pan American games in Guadalajara, Mexico and at the FINA World Championships in Shanghai, China.
Wurzel-LoPorto hopes her athletes will carry with them the values they have acquired as members of the team even after leaving the sport.
“I try to instill values that they can take throughout life,” she said.
Wurzel-LoPorto is also proud of the efforts and achievements of her athletes outside of the pool. “We have one of the highest GPAs in all of athletics and we’ve had that for years,” she said. “They are all Americans in the water and academically superb.”
According to the head coach, she receives emails from professors thanking her for the quality of her athletes because they are such excellent students.
“That is what I take home every day,” she said. “I feel like an accomplished coach because they are earning straight A’s and want to win a national championship. You can’t beat that.”
To learn more about UIW’s Synchronized Swimming program and to view their 2011-12 team roster and current schedule, please visit www.cardinalathletics.com. Also visit UIW Synchronized Swimming on Facebook.