Aquaporko!, or I Was a Teenage Synchronized Swimmer

When I heard that there was a film at Sydney’s Mardi Gras Film Festival that centered around a fat-positive synchronized swimming team in Melbourne, my fingers tripped over each other in their haste to find the “buy tickets” button on the festival website. As I said to my friends who I went to see the film with, “If they just set it in space, this film would be *made* for me.”

I have strong feelings about body politics. I love exercise and think more people should do it, but I don’t that changing the way your body looks should be the main goal. I believe that health comes from joyful movement, not from a scale or a measuring tape. The greatest bearers of our culture’s obsession with beauty culture are fat women. We live in a society that pathologizes their bodies and sees them as diseased, disgusting, asexual, inhuman.

I also have strong feelings about synchronized swimming. I first started synchro, as we call it, when I was eleven years old. I’m still not quite sure if the main reason why I joined was because I was enthralled by the sport or the coach’s daughter, but I stayed because of the love and camraderie I felt from my teammates.

I swam on two teams during my six-year career. The first was populated with homeschooled conservative Christians, but they accepted me despite my liberal leanings and public school education. This was during a time in my life when I was enduring daily abuse from my classmates and the fact that the girls at synchro practice saw fit to put their trust in me sustained me through those difficult years.

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I joined my second team after my family moved from Olympia to Kirkland, a suburb of Seattle. I had two choices at that point: I could join the super-serious-business team that was closer to my house or the more laid-back team up north in Mountlake Terrace. I decided to go with the second. It was my perfect team, full of beautiful weirdos just like me. My coach from that team is like family – she even came to my wedding.

Competing for me was never about winning gold medals, because I didn’t have a chance of that. (The only routine I ever swam at a national level finished at second-to-last place.) For me, meets were an opportunity to show off my skills and see how much I could impress the judges this time. It was about spending time with my friends from other teams. It was about doing something beautiful with my teammates.

Aquaporko is a synchronized swimming team for voluptuous, curvy, big boned and/or fat people. Its aim is to provide a place where fat folks can enjoy the pool with other like-minded, like-bodied people. The documentary shows some ‘Porko practices and their watershow, intercut with conversations between the filmmaker and the team members about fat acceptance, identity and what it means to them to be a queer fat femme.

The women who swim in Melbourne’s Aquaporko team don’t compete. They are completely self-taught. They perform in watershows wearing floral caps in a pool shared with families at open swim. Their routines would not pass muster at a competition – I’m pretty sure I saw some feet on the ground, which is grounds for disqualificiation under FINA rules. This film would have pissed me off as a thirteen-year-old synchro fanatic. Thirty-year-old me recognizes that that’s not the damn point.

In the film, the women talk about what the team means to them. They say it helped them gain acceptance of their bodies. They say it helped them regain their feminity. One woman even said that after participating in Aquaporko, she went swimming at the beach for the first time since she was a kid. But one thread that kept coming up was that while these women joined Aquaporko to find a group of like-minded people to swim with, they stayed because they loved being surrounded by strong women who loved them unconditionally.

I know what it means to be outcast, but for different reasons. My middle school classmates treated me like sub-human garbage for living my little androgynous life, for being more interested in science fiction and playing the flute and synchro than boys and Seventeen Magazine. These women are treated similarly simply for the fact that their bodies are so far outside the (nearly impossible) standards that our society deems acceptable.

For all of us, synchro provided a place where everything falls away except for what our bodies can do. Where you can find acceptance and sisterly love in a float pattern, arms linked around legs, eight bodies become beauty. These women tell the camera that synchro changed their lives, and I believe them because it saved mine.

Aquaporko! was a lovely film. The joy that these women had swimming together was infectious. My face hurt by the end of the film because I had been smiling for the whole half hour. I wasn’t the only one who felt that way, either – Aquaporko! won the Mardi Gras Film Festival Audience Award for Best Documentary.

If you want, you can buy an Aquaporko t-shirt (sizes start at XL!) from the film’s Pozible campaign. And if you’re a queer fat femme living in Sydney or Melbourne, there’s an Aquaporko team near you.

Aquaporko! is having an encore showing of their film at the Red Rattler on Sydney on 10 March. It is also showing at the Melbourne Queer Film Festival on 18 March. So if you’re in Sydney or Melbourne, or if and when Aquaporko! comes to a film festival near you, I strongly recommend watching it especially if you like watching a bunch of fat women loving themselves and supporting their friends. You should also check out the film’s website for more info!

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I am an American expat living in Sydney, Australia. I like science fiction and video games more than is probably healthy. I have a beautiful girlfriend and two little grey cats.

Dina has written 5 articles for us.

25 Comments

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    Thank you for this Dina! If I could make it down to Mardi Gras I definitely would, but for now I’ll just have to wait and see if it makes it to the other side of the equator.

    (I like to think you finished penULTIMATELY in your competition.)

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    This article came at a superawesome time for me, as I just started looking for a new sport to start since my ballet classes are nearly finished!

    I just did a bunch of Googling (instead of, ya know, homework…) and apparently there is/was a synchro club in Toronto, Breathless Synchro, primarily catered to LGBT-identified folks. Amazing! However, their website’s down :( If anyone knows anything about the current status of this club, please contact me and I will love you forever!

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      You can totally do it! Do eggbeater pyramids until your legs fall off. (Hands in, hands out to wrist, arms out to elbows (like you’re making a muscle), arms all the way out (jazz hands optional), arms out to elbows, hands out to wrist, hands in. Start at :05 for each and work your way up.)

      You’ll hate them and want to die, but then you’ll be able to eggbeater like it’s second nature!

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    Thank you for such a glowing review Dina!

    As the director of the film and fellow Porko what touches me the most is that this film resonates will so many different people in different bodies.

    For those of you interested in the film we have a website
    http://www.aquaporkofilm.com where we will announce up coming screenings ( yes USA and Europe! )

    And a facebook page
    at http://www.facebook.com/AquaporkoDocumentary

    Also there are active Aquaporko! groups in Melbourne and Sydney, Australia. We have links on the website for those groups.

    My dream is that Aquaporko! chapters, start up all over the world!. Email me if you are keen and I can give you tips of setting up your own chapter of Aquaporko!

    Much Fat Love

    X Kelli Jean Drinkwater

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    Hi,
    What an amazing review!
    I am one of the organisers (and original members) of Sydney Aquaporko and I wanted to share some information:
    Firstly, Sydney Aquaporko is not limited to people who ID as queer fat femmes, we are open to people of all genders, sexualities and body types (though our members do tend to ID as fat/voluptuous/bigger than “normal”, but we have no minimum size requirements)
    So if you’re in Sydney, you’re welcome to come!

    The second thing I wanted to say to people in other countries who are interested is to just do it!
    Start one. Watch youtube videos on the “eggbeater” and “sculling” and teach yourselves.
    Make up moves and have fun, that is how we all started.

    Please feel free to get in contact with me via facebook (just search “Asha Zappa”) and ask anything you want! Aquaporko can TAKE OVER THE WORLD!

    xx

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      I would so love to get involved in Aquaporko Sydney! I’m not sure it would be appropriate, though, given that I am at the complete other end of the size spectrum (there’s a reason I’m on top of the lift in that picture up there, heh).

      But you need behind-the-scenes help? I’m so there. Seriously.

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          Hi Dina,
          H=Check out our facebook page for a full thing on who we are open to, but it is primarily people who are considered “above conventionally acceptable weight”.
          I’m sure, however, that everyone would LOVE help and input, especially from someone so obviously body positive.
          Feel free to get in touch :-)

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    I was also a teenage synchronized swimmer! I swam for 9 years. My duet partner and best friend was a homeschooled conservative Christian, I was a public-schooled conservative Christian. We had a huge falling out due in part to our more-than-friends feelings for each other and a reconciliation more than a decade later when I reached out (in terror) as I was planning to come out to my parents. I am so incredibly grateful for her being in my life now. :) (/end tangential personal story)

    Dina, your photos make me feel waves of nostalgia. Also, this film looks great! I hope I get to see it. :)

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