Q&A with Janet Jankowiak

Nov. 12, 2017, 4:36 p.m. (ET)

Janet Jankowiak, M.D., has been involved in synchronized swimming since starting a synchro group in the late 1970s. She has been a regular at Masters events over the years, and was part of a Guinness World Record for the World’s Largest Float Pattern in 2011. Jankowiak, a neurologist in the Boston area, talks with USA Synchro about her history in the sport, a book she’s writing that incorporates neurology and synchro, and her work as a fabric artist.

Janet Jankowiak  

What is your background in synchro?

A class in synchronized swimming my first day of college at UC Davis was my introduction to the sport. I had been a competitive swimmer in high school and had a background in modern dance so I was immediately hooked.  I continued to take classes as well as perform in annual Aquacade shows throughout college. During summers, I taught synchro to adolescent girls through a local recreational program.  I continued to teach myself synchro using Beulah Gundling’s “Exploring Aquatic Art” while attending medical school in Strasbourg, France. A lifeguard asked me to start a synchro group there. In the late 1970s, I started with eight swimmers, tired of racing, and had built the group to 20 by the time I returned to the U.S. in 1982. I left them with Anne Froesch, who put on spectacular shows for decades, with over 250 synchro swimmers, many also competing.

I continued to play alone with synchro until another lifeguard, this time in Needham, Mass., introduced me to a veteran competitive synchro swimmer, Amy Hicks. Initially, I was not interested in competition as synchro had always been an art for me, but Amy persuaded me that it was “fun competition.” So, one month before I turned 50 I joined US Masters Synchronized Swimming and competed that fall. Mary Kay Adams was coaching the Wheaton College team and started a masters group, which is what I joined. As Mary Kay did not want to abandon her team of origin, the Dayton Synchronettes, founded in 1952, we became the “Northeastern Extension of the Dayton Synchronettes.”  She returned to Dayton a few years later, but the Northeastern Extension continued, albeit coachless, and we joined the rest of the Dayton team annually at Championships. Except for a few years when I had back issues I have competed since 2000, always with the same team.

What are some of your Masters highlights, and what are some of your favorite memories?

The highlight of the annual meets is seeing my dear Dayton teammates and other wonderful competitors I have gotten to know over the years. I recall Amy Hicks once comparing us to a sorority, which I think is true, although some men have joined us as well. There is definitely a special bond among those who relish spending much of the time upside-down, with their heads underwater, and challenging their bodies to move in remarkable ways that are not possible on land. 

I have several “favorite” memories.  One is the 2011 Championships in Roseville, Calif., when we set a Guinness World Record for the World’s Largest Float Pattern. All in black suits and pink caps, 286 of us linked together to form a giant floating pink Komen ribbon to raise breast cancer awareness. We had to remain attached for over 20 minutes waiting for the photographer to arrive for aerial shots — but it was well worth it!

Another favorite is the years that we had to create a 90-99-year-old age category! Louise Wing, inducted into the International Hall of Fame in synchronized swimming in 2004, continued to wow the crowds with her legendary ballet legs at the age of 91 at the 2010 Championships in La Mirada, Calif.  But perhaps most touching was the 2006 championship held in Beaverton, Ore., when Jean Brooks swam her last solo at the age of 90. What brought the standing ovation for her entire routine was that she was in the early to mid-stages of Alzheimer’s disease. It was her devoted friend and teammate, Ann Denlinger, who consistently took her to the pool to practice and coach her that made Jean’s last swim so extraordinary. And in the stands, cheering for her all the way, was her loving husband, Bob, also suffering from dementia. 

Tell us a little bit about your medical background.  Does competing in synchro help in any way? 

As a behavioral and geriatric neurologist, my greatest focus has been on people with dementia, traumatic brain injury, Parkinson’s disease and stroke. Most of my career was based in an inner-city community hospital in Boston, where I routinely witnessed lives dismantled by poor lifestyle choices. I am convinced that much of this suffering is preventable, or certainly can be managed better with healthy coping skills. These patients are the motivation for the book I am writing on brain health.  For me, synchronized swimming has always provided the ideal outlet to de-stress and focus on something creative, energetic, and uplifting; I’m always in a better mood after a good swim.

You are writing a book that incorporates neurology and synchronized swimming. Tell us a little bit about that book and how the two are related.

After a career largely focused on neurological diseases of the elderly, I believe that healthy behaviors established at an extremely early age (and even in utero) have an enormous impact on how we navigate the hiccups of life. We continue to learn throughout our lives, but many habits and behaviors are just easier to acquire early (also synchro). In my book, I explain why change is so difficult, but how our remarkable “neuroplasticity” (ability of the brain to adapt) can help us meet these challenges.  In lay terms, I offer approaches for making the most of the roller-coaster journey of our lives. I believe synchronized swimming is an ideal model for successful aging. It packs together some of the key elements for maintaining a healthy brain: flexibility, strength, coordination, balance, memory, breath control, music, creativity, adaptability, discipline and social interaction. And it’s fun! I am interviewing synchronized swimmers, exploring what makes us so relatively unique in terms of resilience. If you are interested in contributing to my study, I have a questionnaire that I use to facilitate a follow-up conversation. To request a questionnaire, please click here. As many of our older competitors realize: Synchro is truly a sport for life.

You are a fabric artist.  Tell us a little about that. 

I do not design fabric, but I use all different types of fabrics and interesting materials to create works of art that are hung like paintings. I come from several generations of seamstresses and started sewing pre-school, originally making doll clothes, then made my own clothes through college. Medical school and practice curtailed my sewing although I did make my own Victorian wedding dress and loved making costumes. I took up quilting around the same time I started synchro in competition, in 2000. Once I had the basics down, I began experimenting with my own designs; I generally don’t like following others’ patterns. I delight in coming up with ideas that I don’t know how to execute and experimenting with new techniques. Many of my works are inspired by travel: recent examples are the other-worldly “hoodoos” of Bryce Canyon and the stunning black and white cathedral in Siena, Italy.

Anything else you’d like to add?

“To whom much is given, much is expected” is a motto that has motivated me to volunteer much of my adult life. I am deeply committed to the mission of the YMCA to promote child development, healthy choices and give back to the community. I have been on the Board of Advisors of our local Y for many years, endeavoring to build a new interactive and intergenerational facility to better meet the needs of our community. In addition, I work with our local public health department to educate families and prevent substance use in youth, when brains are most vulnerable to toxic effects. I am thrilled that USA Synchro is working with the Y to promote synchro for all ages.