Boales Giving All Athletes A Chance With Synchro

Tina Boales poses with some of her Bay Area Synchro swimmers. Photo Courtesy: Tina Boales

By Dax Lowery, Swimming World Contributor

Spider-Man speeds along the side of the pool as the crowd begins to cheer.

“You got this!” someone yells.

Steven Aguirre, aka Spider-Man, stops and squats into position. Soon after his theme song begins, he bounces up and appears to shoot invisible webbing before jumping into the water.

Spider-Man, Spider-Man / Does whatever a spider can

As Steven performs his solo synchronized swimming routine, shooting more webbing in time to the music and propelling his legs into the air, it’s hard to believe what he’s gone through to get to this point.

The 9-year-old was born with myelomeningocele, the most serious and common form of spina bifida. According to his mother, Andrea, it’s rare for children with this condition to even walk. He’s had surgery to connect his appendix to his stomach due to complications from his birth defect, and he has little strength in his thighs.

“For him to be able to compete in this sport means the world to me because it was so hard to find the sport that fit him,” she says. “I remember taking him to swimming lessons – he would feel so sad that he was constantly trying to hide his disability or was made fun of for the way he walked.”

Andrea kept searching for the right sport for Steven, and one day noticed a flier for Bay Area Synchro, a synchronized swimming team that includes athletes with disabilities.

“And that’s where the adventure began,” she says.

Wherever there’s a hang up / You’ll find the Spider-Man

Synchro For Everyone

Some days, Tina Boales feels a little overwhelmed. The retired San Jose police officer is regularly answering emails and making calls; painstakingly filling out forms; giving interviews; preparing for camps, for practice, for an uncertain future.

In addition to coaching her Bay Area Synchro swimmers, she’s also the president of the Synchronized Swimming for Athletes with Disabilities (Synchro-AWD) advocacy organization.

“I’m glad I’m retired because if I wasn’t  …,” she says before going silent. Tina and her husband have financed 80 percent of the team’s equipment, pool time and travel. She’s exhausted her entire retirement savings. She was going to buy a motor home at one point, but “the motor home is less important than seeing athletes from all over the world competing in synchronized swimming at the Paralympic Games.”

Athletes like Steven are who drive her to promote the sport as a way for disabled athletes to be active and compete. In a way, she’s been doing that ever since her daughter took up synchro when she was 9.

Raquel Boales, now 16, was born with Erbs Palsey, a condition that severely limited her mobility and flexibility as a child. Raquel’s left arm was not functional, but after water therapy and a major operation when she was 6, Raquel was able to eventually find success in the water. She’s won multiple medals at several prestigious events through the years, including the Canadian National Championships and the State Games of America.

“My daughter is paralyzed on her left side, she has limited mobility with her left arm, and she’s got cognitive issues that she takes medication for,” Tina says. “But she produces a really good routine.”

Synchro in the Paralympics

One of Tina’s main goals with Synchro-AWD  is to get the sport in the Paralympic Games. To do that, more swimmers and more countries would have to be compete in synchro. She’s been told the process to add the sport takes six to eight years.

Her organization’s efforts have led to nonprofits like hers to promote synchro for athletes with disabilities globally. “We’ve inspired Spain to put on camps and we have inspired Taiwan to develop teams, some with 20 athletes,” she says.

Last year, Tina made a presentation in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, at a pre-Paralympic sports conference. Synchro officials from Brazil, Mexico, Canada and Japan also discussed the benefits of adding the sport. Afterward, Inspara Brazil, an advocacy organization similar to Synchro-AWD, put on an exhibition during a break between the Rio Olympic Games and Paralympic Games.

“It was excellent,” Tina says of the conference. “It went so well that six people from the Paralympic Committee came to our exhibition to observe it. They felt that this is a sport that needs to be recognized as a Paralympic sport, based on what they saw. So they’re encouraging me to give them updates on the grassroots movement.”

Tina says there are now 14 countries who have athletes with disabilities competing in synchro, up from three just two years ago. And she expects 10 to 12 more countries with synchro teams to add disabled athletes in the coming year.

“Tina has done a wonderful job at developing synchro for athletes with disabilities,” says USA Synchro CEO Myriam Glez. “I would love for synchro to be part of the Paralympics. Synchro helps young girls and boys develop their confidence, be creative and express themselves with their bodies.”

During a low moment last year, Tina was ready to quit. She was at a fundraiser and decided to ask a Hall of Fame coach if she thought that synchronized swimming would be added to the Paralympics.

“She honestly believes that on the 40th anniversary of synchronized swimming in the Olympics, we will see the birth of synchronized swimming in the Paralympics,” Tina says with a lift in her voice. “A woman like her, with great vision, gave me the energy to stick with this. She renewed my efforts. I have to keep things in perspective: This is all for the athletes.”

Bay Area ‘Startup’

Tina’s daughter, Raquel, started Bay Area Synchro last year. Everything’s experimental, in part because of the limitations of most of the athletes. The team’s off-season is during the winter because that’s when some of the athletes have surgeries, and she and her mom hold monthly camps because longer commitments to the team are difficult for the swimmers.

“We have to test the waters,” Tina says. “This first year was like a test, like a startup company. But with our goals, the way we’ve structured ourselves, we will be successful. I have no doubt.”

Both Tina and Raquel coach the small team of seven swimmers, six with intellectual and physical disabilities. They also train nondisabled athletes, especially during their summer camps. Tina says her coaches have developed a special training guide, called the SUN (Synchro for Unique Needs) Program, to help facilitate training for their athletes with disabilities. The program has been successful in getting three athletes to compete in a short amount of time.

“We just had a swimmer with a developmental disability join our team on April 1, and she competed at the April 23 Intermediate Championships in Novato, Calif., and placed fourth,” Tina says. “That was phenomenal.”

She says their main goal is to have at least 10 athletes to compete in most of the events – solo, duet, trio and an ‘inclusive’ combo team. For now, her swimmers work out in the pool only on Saturdays, with land drills and other choreography on week days. Bay Area Synchro’s staff of eight volunteer coaches also train the athletes on speaking, presentation, inclusiveness and how to work with other people.

“We’re not just teaching them synchronized swimming – we’re teaching them about life and how to survive in the world,” Tina says. “They get all of that. By the time they are eligible for college, they will be ready just like their nondisabled peers. And most will stay in this sport for life.”

Spider-Man’s comeback

Steven Aguirre got his start in synchro last March, only to be forced to take several months off for surgery.

“It was really hard on Steven, especially since it was summertime and all he wanted to do was swim,” says his mom, Andrea. “I remember calling Tina and asking her if we could come to class at least to watch because he was so committed that he felt he was missing out on so much. Tina was incredibly supportive and always made Steven feel included. They would do deck work for as long as he could handle the pain. He couldn’t get in the water for quite a while, but that did not keep him from practicing.”

Finally, Steven, feeling confident, was ready for his first meet. Before it began he told his mom: “I am going to try and win the gold medal, but I think I would be OK if I only won a bronze medal because I can do things other children can’t.”

Steven’s Spider-Man routine did earn him the bronze in the novice division.

“This meet taught him that he can accomplish anything in life,” Andrea says. “I thank Tina for this amazing organization that my son is a part of, and I really think she can change the lives of so many kids like him.”

For more information on the Synchro AWD organization and its team, Bay Area Synchro, please visit www.synchroswimawd.org.