At the start of the pandemic, Emmanuella Tchakmakjian had a choice: continue training with the U.S. national synchronized swimming team for a shot in the now-postponed Tokyo Olympics or become a varsity swimmer at Stanford.
Her love of learning drove her to become a Cardinal and on Friday, the freshman will swim in her first collegiate championship, where Stanford will look to break a streak of three consecutive second-place finishes, all behind Ohio State.
“There are so many special things about this national championship,” she said.
As with countless other sports, the COVID-19 pandemic prompted the cancellation of last year’s championship in March, denying last year’s three seniors a chance to defeat the Buckeyes. Tchakmakjian will be swimming for those seniors, performing routines that they developed.
“I know how much they want this and how much it will give them closure,” Tchakmakjian added. “It’s more than 12 people, it’s 15.”
For senior Jacklyn Luu, this championship is also about the “trials and tribulations that we’ve been through over the past year.”
In July, the University said it wouldn’t support the team at a varsity level, and for most of the year, the synchronized swimming team did not know whether it would have to compete for the title virtually.
The Cardinal found success online before, defeating Ohio State and University of the Incarnate Word in two virtual meets this year. The team also took down Incarnate Word in two in-person meets, neither of which had fans, to round out its four-meet season. But nothing compares to having fans in the stands for a national championship.
“Having other people there to bring the energy to you fuels a fire that isn’t there when you don’t have spectators,” Tchakmakjian said.
Tchakmakjian won’t just have her fans cheering her on. She’ll also have a team anchored by three seniors — Luu, Caitlin Klauer and Sophia Susac — all competing in a meet for the last time.
“We have not elected the team captain this year, but we have a super effective senior class in terms of their cohesion, their leadership skills,” said head coach Megan Abarca.
When the trio arrived as freshmen, the bonds on the team weren’t as strong.
“People kind of did their own things outside the pool,” Susac said.
But thanks to the efforts of her, Klauer and Luu, the team is now more united than they’ve ever seen. She credits their affectionately called “shenanigans” — taking pictures, making Christmas cards and finding ways to celebrate minor holidays like Groundhog Day — along with the whole team living together in Suites, for helping bond the team during the pandemic. The seniors haven’t just unified the team but also themselves.
“The three of them, they’re like this one unit,” Tchakmakjian said. “Their energy is just really contagious.”
Klauer sees the team’s unity, developed after everyone arrived on campus in early December, as its greatest strength.
“I think that’ll really play a part in how we compete this weekend,” she said.
This weekend isn’t just about affirming the bonds of the team. It’s also the athletes’ fight for the continuation of their program. While both the University and alumni advocacy group 36 Sports Strong are optimistic about continued dialogue, synchronized swimming’s future remains uncertain. That hasn’t stopped Klauer from keeping up hope for the team’s reinstatement.
“We’re gonna keep fighting for it and we’re excited for this weekend,” she said. “I think we have a lot to prove.”
Abarca has encouraged her team to embrace the uncertainty and says her athletes are ready to lay it all on the line at Friday’s meet.
“I think it definitely gives us a sense of urgency,” Abarca said. “There’s no time but now for us.”