Sixteen-year-old Bart Lively desperately wants to feel comfortable in his own skin. Sure, he’s a competitive swimmer, but being a jock doesn’t mean he isn’t the target of gay jokes, and the macho culture of his swim club is wearing him down. At the same time, he becomes drawn to the art and athleticism of synchronized swimming, the idea of the human form moving to music under water. So he jumps at the opportunity to become the first boy on the synchro swimming team, even if it means others start questioning his masculinity even more.
He starts finding himself attracted to his teammate Erika, and when she asks Bart to swim with her in a brand new event, the mixed duet, he commits to taking them all the way to the Olympics. But Bart’s difficulty at achieving the skills he needs, and Erika’s sudden decision to quit the duet, threaten to derail his dream and kill what made the sport so liberating and alluring in the first place. And it doesn’t help that as he falls in love with Erika, he’s falling in lust with her enemy and synchro rival Chelsea … not to mention a cute boy in the diving club.
Ultimately, Bart will have to give in to his intuition that leads him to realize there are many ways to be a boy. If he doesn’t, he’ll not only lose his friendship with Erika, but his new Olympic dream—and the joy he feels as he dances in the deep.
|Publisher:||Arsenal Pulp Press, Limited|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.00(h) x (d)|
|Age Range:||14 Years|
About the Author
Shannon McFerran studied writing at the University of Victoria, and earned an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia. She has published short stories in numerous literary magazines and a YA anthology. Synchro Boy is her first novel.
Read an Excerpt
Today I catch the eye of the synchro girl with dark hair and good dimples, just before I dive off the starting block. It’s the last race of the meet if I swim my Triple A time now, I’ve got a shot at the National Team.
That is, if Geoff doesn’t kill me first.
The girl with the good dimples smiles at me. I smile back. I’ve been watching the synchro girls for ages, so it’s fun that they’re all lined up along the wall of the dive tank now, watching me. When I watch them, they don’t even notice me looking. Well, if they do, they don’t show it and I get it. They’re performers. I danced for seven years, so I remember what that was like to be in front of the fourth wall.
But they’re the dancers now. I’m just a fish. I hunch over on the block, ready to propel myself in the water.
I wonder if she thinks I belong here. Because some days, I don’t even feel like I fit in with the guys on the Rosa Waves team. I don’t think like them, or joke like them and I may be great at long course, but I don’t look the part. I’m the only guy on the blocks with long, lean limbs, the only one with slender shoulders. I don’t have a swimmer’s hunch. I spent too many years in front of a mirror with my shoulders back, working my core, before I found my way to the pool.
Yeah, I’m the pretty one. No, go ahead, you can say it. I know you’re thinking it.
Swimmers, take your marks. I look down at my reflection, staring back at me from the pool’s still, flat surface.
The horn sounds.
I push off and dive as far as I can, holding my head down.
When I surface and breathe to my right, Nanaimo’s swimmer for the relay is already ahead of me by a stroke. He’s a big guy, shoulders twice my size. It’s okay. I just pull harder. When I breathe left, I glimpse the pace clock.
When I breathe right, Nanaimo’s still a head in front. I tell myself I just have to be fast enough for the qualifying time.
Left breath after the turn. The pace clock says 31 seconds. Too slow. Pull harder. Kick harder.
Last breath on the right side.
I pull with everything I’ve got, forcing myself to keep my head down, no more breaths, no more drag. I’m going to make it to nine strokes this time.
Eight more strokes. Seven, six, five, four.
Three more strokes, then I slap my hand on the deck. Andy dives over my head. Do I have my time? The pace clock says 57 by the time I look up. Too close to know for sure.
I get out, and the timers in my lane are both standing up. The guy’s helping the lady dry spilled coffee off of her clipboard, her clothes.
The other two lanes are well behind us now, and the stands are screaming. You gotta love that about a qualifier at your home pool.
Andy gets out, and I raise my hand for a high-five.
“We could have had first.” He shakes his head.
“We might still!”
I go to look over the timer’s shoulder, but the split time’s not there. Why?
“Hey, sorry… what happened to my split time?
“It was an accident. Someone knocked my elbow and ”
The official walks over to us.
“Get off the deck! You know you’re not supposed to talk to the timers.”
“I know, but…”
I go to the back of the deck, and watch Geoff jump in.
I know exactly what happened.
See, Coach Cragg put me first in the medley so my time could qualify but that meant there would be no anchor instead, we had the slowest guy bring up the rear. And that means Geoff’s gotta swim breaststroke, which he hates.
I know, I don’t get it. Who hates breaststroke?
Anyway, Geoff was shooting daggers at me when I got up on the starting block. Let’s just say that uh… he takes his racing very seriously. Not that I don’t the National Team trials is my program goal, signed by me and my mom at the start of every school year at the Sports Institute. I just don’t feel like it’s worth getting mad at your teammates, you know? But Geoff’s been pissed at me ever since I got faster last year.
He bumped her elbow. At just the right time.
Geoff’s giving it everything he’s got, trying to make up for lost time, but it’s clear. He’s not going to make it. Nanaimo comes in first. He gets out and rips his goggles off. He looks amused.
“So, Princess, you get your time?”
Princess. That’s it. “You hit the table, you jerk!” I lunge for him, and Geoff jumps back, but he slips, his feet coming out from under him, his head hitting the tile.
I wasn’t going to hit him. I swear I just wanted to scare him. But now some officials are coming over here, and Geoff’s holding his head as everyone clears tables and chairs off the deck. The meets over.
“What the holy ?” Geoff sputters. “Oh my god.”
“I’m so sorry, man. So sorry.” I try to catch his eye, but Geoff just stays with his head down, and when he opens his mouth, there’s blood.
“Oh, Geoff I think you’re bleeding.”
“‘Cause I bit my tongue, you asshole!” Geoff kicks my shin.
I look up at Coach Cragg, who’s telling the others to back off. Great. Then he helps Geoff stand up, and sits him on a deck chair. Coach checks his eyes, and holds up fingers to see if Geoff’s concussed. When he decides he’s okay, he turns to me, and stares. Everyone on the team is quiet. I hear the screams of the kids in the wave pool, and the thwanging of diving boards. I feel stapled to the ground under his glare.
“That’s it, Bart.”
“I’m sorry, Coach. I didn’t mean to hurt him. But he sabotaged my score ”
“I don’t care,” Coach shakes his head. “You don’t breathe when I tell you to breathe, you don’t focus, you stare off at the bloody synchro team when I’m trying to get your attention, and now you’re playing around like you’re in goddamn Aquatots or something. How old are you?”
“You’re not acting like it.”
I stare at the tile by my feet. I can’t look at anyone. Certainly not over at the pool where the girl with the good dimples could be looking at me and thinking I’m a wound up jerk. My eyes drift up to the empty spot on the plaque where my name’s supposed to go at the end of this season. As long as this shit with Geoff doesn’t screw it up.
“Go get changed, Lively. You’re done for today.”
“You want me to leave?”
“Yeah, get out of here. Get yourself together. Come back next week.”
“What? You’re suspending me?”
“Yes, and when you come back, I want you here every day, doing your best. No picking fights. You hear me?”
“This is unbelievable! What about Geoff? Did you see what he did? I don’t have my time because of him!”
“I don’t care. I can’t be concerned about your time if you’re going to attack your teammates.” Cragg shakes his head. “You’re up for national competition for god’s sake.”
Fine. This is bullshit, but I know better than to push it with Cragg. When I do, it just gets back to my Dad, and that leads to him calling me from the oil patch for the express purpose of making me feel like crap.
I take off to the warm pool to do a few laps to get the stress out of my system. Then Geoff stops on his way to the locker room.
“Geoff, look, I’m sorry about your head. I really am.”
“You wanted me to hit the deck.”
“I did not!”
I keep my eyes on the synchro girls practicing their egg beater, doing laps of it across the dive tank.
“You know you’re such a fucking ballerina, you should just go join them.”
“The goddamned water ballet, Bart. Isn’t that what you want?”
“Oh, come on. You’ve been staring at them every chance you get.”
“Well? So what?”
“So… it’s Try It Day. You should go.”
The sandwich board sign’s at the edge of the dive tank like it is every Sunday in September, trying to get more swimmers to join. Synchro Swimming Try It! Free session, Sunday, 11 am. And for the first time, I’m not in a practice with the Rosa Waves.
But this is a trap. Geoff just wants to see me do it so he can get more fuel for teasing me.
“It’s okay, Princess. If you’re too scared to go over there and join them, I understand. Those girls are pretty scary.”
“Don’t call me Princess.”
Geoff just grins. “Look at you. You are scared but, of what? The girls? Or doing what you want?”
His question guts me. So Geoff just thinks that I’m some chicken shit? That’s it. I am so sick of him, and Coach, and all the macho guys on Rosa Waves giving me a hard time and for what?
“I do what I like.”
“Yeah. Watch me.”
Before I fully appreciate what I’m actually doing, I start crossing the ten tiles between our pool and the dive tank. Half way there, I think, crap. What am I doing?
Geoff calls at my back, “Enjoy your holiday, Princess.”
I flip him the bird over my shoulder.
I walk over to the podium and sound system where the synchro coach stands. The synchro girls look up at me. Chelsea stops talking, and just stares. Then the girl with the good dimples turns around to see who she’s looking at I smile and give her a little wave.
Then I turn back to look at Geoff, but he’s already walking off the deck Instead, I’m looking straight at Coach. He just shakes his head.
The girls break their stare when a short, fit woman with her hair up in a messy ponytail comes up to me.
I hold out my hand.
“Hi, I’m Bart.”
“Hi, Bart. I’m Su-Yun. What can I do for you?” she asks me as we shake, and I’m surprised to find her voice so familiar. But of course I’ve heard her shouting over the noisy pool at the girls so many times.
“Um…” I motion toward the sandwich board. “I’m here to try synchro for free?”
She looks behind me, then meets my eyes. “You swim with Dennis Cragg’s team, right? Does he know you’re doing this?”
“Uh, he didn’t…until now.”
“Oooh. He won’t like this!”
Su-Yun smiles slightly. “So you’re here to try synchro in protest?” She chuckles. “I like this. Protest synchronized swimming… Okay, Bart. The girls call me Sunny. I’m the head coach.”
“Thanks for having me.”
Sunny calls the girls over and introduces us. A couple of them say a shy hi or hello. The girl with the good dimples is Erika. Sunny introduces the tall black girl from my school as Julia, and she smiles warmly. Casey, Kyoka, and Huiyan, who all go to a different school, don’t say anything. Huiyan whispers to Kyoka.
Chelsea raises one eyebrow. “Bart Lively?” she asks, like she can’t believe it’s me.
She goes to say something else, but Sunny cuts her off.
“Okay!” Sunny shouts. “Warm up time.”
I hop in, and just about sigh at the warmth compared to our lane pool. It’s got to be thirty degrees Celsius in here. While I’m doing laps of freestyle, I try out different casual invitations in my head.
Then Sunny gets us to do a lap of eggbeater.
“Bart, line up behind the girls and see if you can match their speed. Twenty-five metres.”
I start off swimming eggbeater upright as possible, arms furiously pulling me ahead in time with the girl in front of me. I don’t want to be left behind… But seriously, these girls are fast. I am trying to keep up with Chelsea, who’s in front of me, and I can’t! It’s a killer! It’s almost funny, how this tires my legs out.
After that, Sunny says “Okay, we’re going to do sculling and figures, then we’ll try some lifts, for fun. Go grab two water jugs. Erika?”
I swim to the side, and Erika follows.
“I can show you where we keep them.”
She pulls herself out of the pool and onto the deck effortlessly. Erika’s not like the girls in my swim club all big shoulders and biceps. Her physique’s more even like a dancer’s. I follow her into a little room off the pool deck, and she grabs two big, empty collapsible water jugs out of a big bin and passes them to me.
“I guess you’ve seen us use these?”
“Yeah, for balance or something?”
“They help keep you floating so you can focus on the figures.” She smiles again, and I notice her deep brown eyes, and amazing dimples. But even more, I notice she has an energy around her, like she’s wired and ready for something. Not like the way the lane swimming girls drag themselves around at practice. She’s lit up, in a way.
I could ask her out now but that feels a little weird. Too soon.
She waits for me to open the door back to the pool deck, but I take a sec to peek out the window first.
“Is something the matter?”
“Uh, no. It’s okay.” I lean on the door, and it opens a crack.
“Are you nervous?”
“Perceptive.” I smile at her.
Erika raises her eyebrows.
I sigh, and open the door all the way. I hold one of the giant bottles up on my shoulder, hiding my face as we head back to the pool. Erika bonks me from behind.
“What? You’re afraid one of your teammates are going to see and make fun of you?”
“It wouldn’t be the first time.”
“Well, everyone thinks this sport is only about looking pretty, but just wait until you sprint free for a hundred metres and then do an under.
“What’s an under?”
“A length of the tank twenty-five metres without a breath.”
“Oh yeahI saw you doing that.”
“Yeah, it’s not easy. And get ready for some bruises.”
Erika comes up so she’s standing toe to toe with me. “We swim really close to each other. It’s pretty much a contact sport.”
The first figure they show me is sailboat.
Then they get me to swim the ballet leg.
“Not bad! You’ve got a lot of core strength already,” Sunny says.
When we finish practicing basic figures, the girls demo some of their routine. I dunk my head under to watch them underwater, and hear the music clear as if it were playing in air.
The power in their legs puts the girls on my team to shame some of the guys, too. And the girls have such powerful cores, they can lift each other out of the water, propel themselves out of the water, upside down. Watching the work on the surface is one thing. But watching what they do underwater, too…I don’t even know how to describe it. It’s like I’m watching goddesses.
“Okay, your turn, Bart! Let’s get you and Chelsea and Erika and…Julia? No… Kyoka.” The shortest girl turns her head toward Sunny, her eyes wide. She shakes her head, just a little. “Yes, Kyoka.” You four. Let’s see you put something together. Bart, you’ll need one of these.” Sunny passes me a nose clip.
“And girls, nothing hard! Basics. One lift. You all lift Kyoka.” She smiles mischievously. “Bart, you saw how the girls positioned themselves into the stack lift, before? I’d like to see you try the base. Erika and Chelsea, you be the pushers. Kyoka’s feet will be on your shoulders, Bart.”
Kyoka looks away, into the stands, where the group of synchro moms sit watching, clutching paper coffee cups. She looks at them like some puppy that’s been told to sit and stay.
When I get up on the bulkhead, I look back over at the racing lanes. Everyone’s gone home. No one’s here now to care that I’m doing this. I feel so free for a moment, it’s like I’m a little kid playing at the pool.
“You’re not bad, you know.” Erika says. “You haven’t done this before?”
“No. But I danced for eight years.”
“Come on,” Chelsea orders us to get out of the pool and start from the bulkhead. She picks a song on the iPod, and sets it to loop. “Get back up here, Bart. We’re supposed to dive in together.”
Erika gives me a look, like she’s saying I should just ignore Chelsea.
“So when did you start swimming?” she asks.
“I was just about twelve when I joined Rosa Waves.”
“Do you miss dance?”
I pretend I don’t hear her question as I climb the ladder. Chelsea starts moving us into position on the bulkhead, telling us who’s in back, who’s going to crouch in front, ready to dive.
Once under water, I position my shoulders under Kyoka’s feet. I hear metal on metal tapping, Sunny keeping the count for us with a little wrench against the ladder. I feel the girls below me grab my feet. On four they eggbeater up. As powerfully as I can, I stand up from the squat, pushing Kyoka out of the water. From underneath, it doesn’t look like much. But it must have been something, because Kyoka shoots back into the water in a stream of bubbles. We surface and she’s squealing and waving her hands.
“That wasn’t just a lift! Bart!”
“I someraulted! Bart, I was totally in the air. Do it again!”
Chelsea scoffs. “Kyoka, come on.”
“You did a somersault?” I grin at Kyoka. “That is so awesome!”
Chelsea nudges my side. “Try me. I’m heavier. And see if you can get me out of the water on your own. No stack.”
I draw a deep breath and sink down beneath the surface. Chelsea’s calves are solid muscle in my hand. I launch her and surface, and the first thing I see is Sunny, staring at us from the deck.
“Wow. You are hired!” She jokes.
“For all our lifts! Yes!” Kyoka shouts. I’m the big brother now, suddenly popular at the lake because all the little sisters just found out he can give them rocket rides.
Chelsea tries not to look impressed.
“Okay, fine. But can you do this? She gets out of the pool and steps into a front split, flat on the deck. She’s getting cheeky.
“Right or left?” I ask, all bored.
Behind me, Erika laughs. “Left! Then side!”
I hoist myself out of the pool, and step into a left front split, and stick my tongue out at Chelsea. Then I shift into side splits, and lift my arms into the air, facing Erika. She splashes water up at me.
“Where did you come from?” Sunny asks.
“Just the swim club.”
“No way. That’s not swim club moves!”
Then Erika outs me as a dancer. Sunny asks me to show them a pirouette, so I do.
“No, I mean under water! And upside down.”
It takes me a sec to think what she’s got in mind, but then I get it. I corkscrew down, spinning… I swim down deep where the volume of water presses against my ears. I get a feeling that runs through my body to my pointed toes, thrusting out of the water as my arms gather volumes, water filling them like I’m hugging the deep. I remember messing around like this in some hotel pool on a road trip stop. Just me in the pool, mom sitting on her deck chair, reading a book.
“You’ve just done a vertical spin, Bart!” Sunny says when I surface. Wow another figure! Without even having to be taught the moves.
I immerse myself again, where there’s no sound now but the hum of the filter. I like this. It’s not like the racing pool where I could spend a whole practice on just a couple of strokes.
The girls’ legs float above me like strands of seaweed, with sun streaming down in between. I swim up to the surface and burst out high as I can, legs beating fast until I push out, almost to my waist, and take a full breath.
Erika looks at me like she feels what I’m feeling. She smiles.
I smile back.
“Okay, we’re done! Good work, today.” Sunny claps. The lifeguards start rolling out lane dividers across the dive tank.
“Uh oh,” Sunny says. I turn around and see two of the moms who sat in the stands make their way across the deck.
“What are you doing?” Kyoka’s mom comes right up and asks me. “Are you making fun of the girls?”
My heart sinks.
Sunny sighs behind me. “He’s not making fun, Mrs. Shiozaki. He came for the Try It session.”
“She’s right,” I say. “Your daughter’s super talented, and…”
“And what, now you’re going to join synchro?” Chelsea’s mom interrupts. “These sessions are to get new girls interested in joining. They’re not for racers to come over here and waste their time, and their coach’s time.” She darts a look at Sunny. Then she shoots her fire gaze back on me. “You may not realize this, but these girls are elite athletes.”
“I know!” I say. I shake my head and walk away, go get my bag. But Chelsea’s mom follows me.
“This isn’t a boy’s sport!” she snaps at my back. Then Erika grabs my arm, and pulls me away before I can say anything else.
“I think you were great,” she says, half-laughing at Amanda Gates. “Don’t listen to her. You should come back!”
“I don’t think so.”
“What, didn’t you have fun? ‘Cause it looked like you were having a pretty damn good time.”
I sigh. “I did have fun. Thank you.” If I were Riley, I’d take this chance to ask her out. But I can’t now. She’d think I’m just doing that to prove a point, after what Chelsea’s mom asked me. Or worse, she’d think that’s the only reason I came over. And it’s not. Sure, I did this to get Geoff off my back but even Geoff would know that was not the reason I stayed for the whole thing.
“So that’s it?” Erika sighs. “You’re so flexible, and you’re that good at the dance stuff, but… you’re a long course swimmer? I don’t get it.”
I shrug. “I like the water.”
She smiles. “So do I.”
“I gotta go.” I shoulder my bag, and head. But walking down the deck to the locker room, I sense her eyes on my back. I get the feeling she isn’t going to let this go.
I go change, and when I get upstairs, I stop to look at the dive tank through the window. Now I know I can swim like those synchro girls do. I can dance under water.
It’s been five seasons swimming with the Rosa Waves, and there have been ups and downs. Maybe it’s down now, but it’ll go up again I know that.
After today though, this suspension’s timed right. ‘Cause now? I don’t know if I could bear going right back in the racing pool tomorrow. Especially after what I just did. I’m the best long course swimmer on the team, butaside from my bud Riley, I can’t stand the Rosa Waves. I can’t stand the racing pool.
God, that’s scary.
A guy runs and spins off the dive platform, his perfect figure defying gravity for a moment. I’d be lying to myself if I said I wouldn’t rather be in that pool swimming synchro, or maybe diving, gracefully plunging into deep water. If only I could get the guts to go up that ten metre tower. But… there’s nobody in the world who could get me up there. Damn, I can’t even go that high to take the water slide.
And like hell I’m going to join an all-girls’ synchro club.