Goggles weren’t allowed. But nose plugs were encouraged. “If you ran out of air and you didn’t have your nose plugs on, you created a vacuum and water would rush into your nose,” explains Marlene Giese (’67 Ed.). “I learned quickly to let out a little air all the time I was underwater.”
Giese, a member of Washington State University’s synchronized swim club from 1965 to 1967, was part of a once-longstanding Cougar aquatic tradition. Fish Fans drew crowds for 70 years, often entertaining sold-out audiences during Mom’s Weekend performances. The club, dating to 1929, was wildly popular for decades.
“We had people clamoring for tickets,” recalls Jimmie Chevrier (x’91) part of Fish Fans from 1987 to 1991. He was the only male member of the club during most of that time, and that didn’t bother him. “It was one of the oldest student-funded clubs on campus when I was there. I was always very proud of that.”
The first mention of what would become Fish Fans appears to be an April 1929 Evergreen article. The story in the student newspaper detailed Mother’s Weekend activities in three paragraphs. The part about the natatorial program wasn’t even an entire sentence. “A swimming exhibition by women students will be given during the afternoon in the new gymnasium …” it reads. The new gymnasium was Bohler Gym, which opened in 1928 with a basketball court, pool, and handball courts.
That initial exhibition was organized by Lois Carrell, a physical education instructor who served as the club’s first adviser. Within two years, Fish Fans was formalized. The 1931 Chinook notes: “The purpose of this group, which has been named Fish Fans, is to further student interest in swimming at Washington State College. To be eligible to this organization the girl must pass a number of tests in diving, endurance swimming, and swimming for form. To earn a pin more difficult requirements must be passed.”
Synchronized swimming, or artistic swimming, originated in the late nineteenth century as ornamental swimming, or water ballet. The sport combines costumes, music, and choreographed moves in routines meant to look elegant and effortless. But they require tremendous flexibility, endurance, breath control, and core strength. “You have to be a really strong swimmer to be able to do this,” Chevrier says. “A lot of people don’t realize what a disciplined sport it is.”
When he was in Fish Fans, practice was held twice weekly in Smith Gym pool and increased in frequency leading up to shows. “We would run through the entire show over and over again,” he says. “It was exhausting.”
Chevrier doesn’t remember having to try out. But archives show Fish Fans used to hold tryouts twice in October—prelims and finals. The Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections at WSU Libraries includes a hand-written, undated skills test for would-be members. Among them: jump in, straight-arm crawl, alternate ballet legs, back pike somersault, front pike somersault, dolphin.
Giese remembers being one of “several girls that would form a circle and then move the circle down through the water while we were all still attached. I think the person in front of me gripped my head and neck with her feet, and I did the same for the person behind me. It seemed like forever that we were underwater, but finally got to the top—without letting go—and could take a breath.”
One of her favorite parts of Fish Fans “was working with the boys. We would stand on their shoulders, they would duck down, and then stand up fast. We dove off their shoulders in a graceful—we hoped—swan dive.”
Early aquacades—or water pageants or follies—featured lifesaving and stroke demonstrations in addition to routines. Sometimes, Fish Fans performed plays or musicals: South Pacific in 1950, The Wizard of Oz in 1949, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1946, Alice in Wonderland in 1942. But, typically, the club offered themed shows. In 1975, when Fish Fans had 47 members, it was “Around the World in 80 Minutes.” In 1964, it was “Once Upon a Splash.” And in 1970, it was “Critic’s Best,” featuring odes to films such as Funny Girl.
Fish Fans produced a similar show in 1990. “I think it was called ‘At the Movies,’” Chevrier says. “We picked songs from different soundtracks, like Simple Minds’ ‘Don’t You (Forget About Me)’ from The Breakfast Club. I did a solo to the love theme from St. Elmo’s Fire and a duet to ‘You’re the One that I Want’ from Grease. We were using the music of the time and trying to come up with modern themes. It was a lot of fun.”
A holiday show was added in the early 1970s. And there were occasional exchanges with Silver Fish, the synchronized swimmers from the University of Washington. But Mom’s Weekend performances were the club’s biggest events, raising money for costumes, scholarships, and more.
Agnes McQuarrie (’41 MS Phys. Ed.), listed with Helen Robinson (’32 Ed.) as co-founder of Fish Fans in the fiftieth anniversary program for 1979’s “Time Passages” show, advised the club from 1944 to 1962. Sue Durrant (’62 MS Phys. Ed.) served from 1962 to 1968. Diane Albright took over in 1968, retiring in the late 1990s. By then, Fish Fans was treading water.
A 2000 Evergreen story noted the now-defunct team had three members “for the past two years,” but was now up to six. “ … we don’t want to have to put an end to a club that has been around for so long,” freshman Ellie Diehl (’03 Nursing) told the student newspaper. At that point, the Evergreen noted, “The club will accept anyone who is interested.”