When it comes to making waves in a single sport, it’s hard to top Beulah Gundling.
The Cedar Rapids native helped develop and popularize synchronized swimming, winning the Canadian solo title in 1949 and five consecutive U.S. championships, starting with the first Amateur Athletic Union solo title in 1950.
Many think “synchronized swimming” is about multiple swimmers being in sync. It actually has more to do with syncing movements to music.
Beulah was a trailblazer in the solo division — basically a gymnastics floor routine in the water.
Her highly choreographed solos had a ripple effect across the entire sport, incorporating ballet-like artistry with dance steps on the deck (before entering the water), interpretive movements based on creative themes and elaborate costumes.
Beulah performed exhibitions at events when her category wasn’t official, doing solos at the 1951 Pan-Am Games in Buenos Aires and the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki.
She won the gold medal at the 1955 Pan-Am Games in Mexico City, synchronized swimming’s first major international event.
She retired from official competition after that but continued doing exhibitions around the world, helping form a governing body for the sport and writing seminal books on synchro technique.
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In 1965, she was in the first class of inductees to the International Swimming Hall of Fame. Just last year, USA Synchro recognized her pioneering 1955 Pan-Am team with a Hall of Fame award.
She would champion the aquatic arts into her golden years and was even swimming just seven days before dying of complications related to colon cancer in 2003. She was 87.
Bottom of the Pool
Born in 1916 in Cedar Rapids, Beulah Detwiler took her first swimming lesson at age 14 and sank to the bottom of a Cedar Rapids YMCA pool.
She was frustrated and humiliated, according to journal notes that would contribute to her autobiography.
That failure prompted her to go to the Cedar Rapids Public Library and check out books on swimming, including a book by Olympian swimmer and Tarzan actor Johnny Weissmuller.
She practiced strokes on dry land until they were second nature, even dunking her face in a water basin at the same time to practice holding her breath. Swimming became her recreational passion.
Beulah graduated from Grant High School in 1934 and Coe College in 1938. At Coe, she participated in the Colonial Ball and May Fete dance programs, as well as two ballets. After graduating, she worked for the Chamber of Commerce and met Henry Gundling, her future husband. They would live in Cedar Rapids and winter in Florida, as Beulah pursued her sport of choice.
On a whim, Beulah entered a freestyle race in Marion in 1942 and won. Then she won the YMCA half-mile Cedar River Race.
Her passion for swimming led her to develop water ballet routines and participate in local water shows. By the time she found synchronized swimming, she was a strong swimmer and accustomed to performing in public.
At one point, Beulah’s success lead to a much-ballyhooed situation involving a temporary ban from competition. Some peers had reported her for an Amateur Athletic Union registration card mishap that wasn’t her fault. The incident made it clear that even the aquatic arts can involve rivalries and behind-the-scenes gamesmanship.
The sport also had a philosophical battle over where it was heading.
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Beulah wrote about the artistry versus technical difficulty debate in her books and in an academic article, giving both sides a spirited defense while championing the merits of the artistic approach. The debate splintered the sport. The faction favoring technical merit would eventually win, and the sport’s governing rules of judging changed accordingly.
“Think of the great Greg Louganis doing a simple, beautiful swan dive to win a competition,” aquatic sports historian and retired CEO of the International Swimming Hall of Fame Bruce Wigo told me when asked to explain the dispute. “These days, you have to do very difficult dives to win competitions, and that’s pretty much the kind of thinking that changed synchro.”
Wigo praised Beulah for her commitment to artistry, noting that there’s something to be said about her vision. The sport went the other direction and today the highest levels of U.S. synchronized swimming continue to prioritize technical difficulty over beauty and grace. Countries at the top of the sport, however, like Russia and Ukraine, dominate international competitions by fusing technical prowess with a Beulah-like artistry drawn from their cultural ties to ballet.
Beulah would be pleased to know that in 2017 her sport officially changed its name from “synchronized swimming” to “artistic swimming.” The U.S. team, however, has refused to adopt the new name.
Joe Coffey is a freelance writer and former journalist, educator and content marketer in Cedar Rapids. He has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Iowa and is writing a book on Grant Wood. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org