Ahead of the 2018 Gay Games in Paris, the Subversive Sirens show no sign of nerves. At a recent rehearsal, the bleachers are packed with loved ones as the five teammates—predominantly queer ladies of color in their 30s and 40s—approach the pool, clad in custom suits of spangly purple and black fishnet, topped with silver swim caps.
The music kicks on: “Dearly beloved, we have gathered here today, to get through this thing called life.” The Sirens hold a mock-wedding on the pool deck, then dive in. Their energetic legs scissor skyward, form floating stars, and peel into columns.
All three of their routines are choreographed to Prince tunes, of course.
“We’re swimming to save our lives,” explains team co-founder Signe Harriday following the rapturous performance.
After attending the 2014 Gay Games in Cleveland, Harriday pitched the idea of forming a team to her friend Suzy Messerole, though they weren’t sure what sport they would compete in.
They scrolled through options together. “I believe Signe’s quote was, ‘I took a one-week synchronized swimming camp in fourth grade, so I got this,’” Messerole says with a laugh.
The pair began training, inviting Tana Hargest, Zoe Hollomon, and Nicki McCracken into the fold. As Minnesota’s premiere synchronized swimming team, they’re dedicated to black liberation, equity in aquatic arts, body positivity, and queer visibility.
In the context of a sport formerly known as “water ballet,” what they’re doing is transgressive. For one routine, set to Prince’s “Pussy Control,” they cheekily repurpose old-school synchronized swimming moves to allude to cunnilingus. Happily splashing, Harriday hangs upside down, toes pointing skyward as Messerole glides through her bobbing “V” shape as she grins.
Everyone in the stands goes bonkers. One imagines that more traditional Esther Williams-era fans might clutch their pearls.
“We don’t even know how stuff is scored, honestly,” admits McCracken. (It helps that the Games have no qualifiers, with a spirit of inclusion and love prevailing over competition.)
“This is for our joy,” says Hollomon. In our contemporary climate, joy in and of itself is rebellious.
“There’s this aspect of the joyousness people gravitate toward.... Like, ‘Yes, you can decide all of a sudden you want to be a competitive athlete and actually do it,’” says Hargest.
The Sirens are dreaming bigger than many dare. In the process, they’re reclaiming the pool, a multigenerational site of oppression and exclusion for many, but especially for the black community.
Suddenly, this seems less absurd, and downright revolutionary.
Yet despite fans’ cheers of “Gold! Gold! Gold!” the Sirens aren’t out for blood at the Gay Games, nor does their mission end after Paris: McCracken has her sights on the Phillips Aquatics Center.
“It’s beautiful and clean and there’s no one there. My plan is to make it the new synchro pool. But they don’t know this yet.”
And if they end up spawning an entire city of mermaids?
Everyone bursts into song: “That would be amaaaazing!”
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