Canisius athletes to try out for U.S. Olympic team

Three members of the Canisius synchronized swimming team will try out for the U.S. Olympic team in early November. From left to right: senior Jessica Grogan, junior Missy Andrews and sophomore Jessica Mancini.

It’s a weekday afternoon in mid October when an ambulance turns down Hughes Avenue and pulls up at the not-so off-campus residence of a Canisius athlete. The faint wee-ooh of a siren must belong to some other ambulance on the streets around campus. This one remains silent, with its lights on but not flashing.

This isn’t a real emergency. The paramedic behind the wheel is a friend of the roommate of the athlete who’s just having a little bit of difficulty.

Synchronized swimmer Jessica Grogan was rushing to an interview yesterday when she put her national finalist ring on the wrong hand. It’s stuck, and today her finger is swollen and turning purple. She’s tried everything from soap to butter to oil to get it off but hasn’t had any luck. When hot water didn’t work, she tried cold water. Nothing. Now it’s time for the paramedics to give it a shot.

Teammates Missy Andrews and Jessica Mancini haven’t heard every detail of this story yet, only pieces, but none of it surprises them. That’s just Grogan being Grogan, they say. She laughs at this because she knows it’s true; she’s the first to admit it. Grogan’s better in the water than she is on land, they tease.

But they’re only half kidding. It’s partially true because she can be a bit clumsy at times, but mostly because she’s so incredibly good in the water. They all are.

The paramedics end up having to cut the ring and then pry it off her finger. It’s slightly embarrassing, yes, but aside from a little blood loss and the mark Grogan will have on her left hand for the next few days, this incident won’t cramp her style too much. The Canisius senior can always put on her other national finalist ring.

Canisius synchronized swimmers are good, perhaps better than any other Canisius athletes relative to the talent that’s out there. Swimming for the Griffs means they were good enough to make one of the four Division I synchro teams in the country. Wearing those rings means they were good enough to place at nationals, and for Grogan, Andrews and Mancini, placing as high as they did means they are good enough to earn an invitation to United States Olympic tryouts.

“When I was little, when I first started, I was like, ‘I’m going to be an Olympian. I’m going to be the Olympic soloist,’ ” Mancini said. “Everyone thinks that when you’re little and you first start out – ‘I’m going to be the best of the best.’ Then you get a little older and you go to more elite competitions and reality starts to set in. There’s these girls who move to California, get homeschooled and train eight hours a day. I don’t. I go to a normal school, I live on the east coast, I don’t have that kind of pool time or money to train or [that kind of] coaching staff, so you think it’s not possible. So this is never something I thought would actually happen.”

“I didn’t think it was even a possibility,” Andrews added. “It was kind of mentioned last year – if you get a certain score, you can qualify for Olympic trials – but I didn’t think we were going to qualify… When I started synchro, I didn’t think that would ever happen.”

Synchronized swimming isn’t the easiest sport to get in to. For starters, you have to be a strong swimmer, something most children are not. After that, it takes a little bit of luck. None of the three girls had mothers or sisters who pushed them into the water.

Andrews’ story is the simplest: bored with being miles ahead of all the other swimmers, she jumped at the chance to try something new. After attending a meet with her sister, she was sold.

Jess Mancini’s babysitter was one of the top swimmers on her club team back home. When your babysitter is your neighbor and her mom is the coach, things have a way of falling into place.

Then, of course, there’s Grogan, who remembers every detail: “I was in Old Navy and I remember standing on the big – remember how they used to have the big world? I was standing on that and I saw one of my friends at that mall and she was telling me about how she did it and I told my mom I wanted to try it. She quit maybe two weeks later, but here I am.”

Twelve years and two rings later, here she is, qualifying for Olympic trials by way of her performance in the solo competition. While collegiate synchronized swimming has four events – team (eight members), solo, duet and trio – the only way to qualify for the Olympic tryouts is through a solo performance or duet, like Andrews (a junior) and Mancini (a sophomore) teamed up to do. There is no Olympic trio.

Approximately 50 women will compete for nine roster spots when the tryout commences Nov. 10 in Greensboro, N.C. At 1 p.m. on Nov. 12, cuts will be made and only the top 30 will advance. By 10 p.m. that night, more cuts will be made and only the top 14 swimmers will remain. The third tryout phase will last until Nov. 15, when the final roster will be announced at 7 p.m.

How much has Canisius helped the girls get where they are now? They answer almost in unison.

“A ton.”

“A ton.”

“So much.”

“I’ve gotten so much better in the past three years than I ever imagined I could,” Andrews said. “Going to any other school would have been four more years of the same stuff and this has really taken it to another level… Going to Olympic trials is more than I could have ever expected from myself. I don’t think I could have done it through another school.”

When Mancini was in middle school and high school, her coaches suggested she check out collegiate nationals if they were anywhere around where she lived. They wanted her to see this level of competition and how incredible it was.

“My coach and my entire team would go together and we’d watch Canisius swim and that’s what really made me come here. [My coach] made me come to a meet and I watched them swim and I was in complete awe of how amazing they were. And I ended up thinking to myself, ‘Well I have to come here now. I have to be a part of that.’ ”

Wild success stories or not, the team still isn’t sure it fits in on campus, but this opportunity will help.

“Synchro’s obviously not the most popular sport here… we’re kind of used to hearing it’s not a sport, it’s like cheerleading in the pool,” Andrews said. “It’s really nice to know even though people say what they want about synchro, you’re not going to Olympic trials.”

All three girls say they’re long shots at making the team, but then again, none of them thought getting invited to try out was possible, either. This experience is something they will keep with them forever. Mrs. Andrews passed on the story of her time at U.S. Olympic gymnastics tryouts to Missy, and Missy is sure she’ll pass this story on to her children when that time comes.

The synchronized swimming team’s unofficial motto this year is to get rings. But with the Olympic event kicking off Aug. 5 in London, here’s one better: get medals.