Amanda Jessie Carlson first saw artistic swimming at age 8 when neighbors invited her to an annual water show by the Meraquas of Irvine.
“It was so mesmerizing,” she says. “I started classes, joined the team and never stopped.”
She is among hundreds of swimmers who’ve gone through the Meraquas over the past 60 years and discovered their love for the sport, where they perform a synchronized choreographed routine in the water.
“It’s like this cool combination of swimming, gymnastics and ballet,” says Carlson, 18, a graduate of Northwood High. “Everyone sees it in the Olympics, but they’ve never met anyone that does it. So it’s fun when I tell them that’s what I do.”
Established in 1963, the Meraquas is Orange County’s only artistic swimming team. Last year, its senior team won the gold medal in the U.S. National Championships in Mesa, Arizona.
“That will always be a major defining moment for me,” Carlson says. ”Every time I think of it, I can’t help but feel a little proud of myself for being a part of that great achievement.”
Head coach Candace Hipp says the Meraquas’ camaraderie sets them apart from other teams.
“We are like a family,” she says. “Older swimmers get to work with younger swimmers, and the younger swimmers look up to the older swimmers.”
The team practices at the William Woollett Jr. Aquatics Center four days a week.
Hipp, who’s led the Meraquas for more than 30 years, ensures that the swimmers enjoy a balanced life. Many of the swimmers graduated from high school with honors, including two valedictorians.
“Other commitments and passions are celebrated rather than being a hindrance,” says Srishti Patel, 18, a graduate of Irvine High. “In other teams, the level of commitment makes it so you can’t really have a life, so it’s nice that you can still do other things that bring you joy.”
But nothing beats the liberating experience of moving to the music in the water, Patel says.
“When you do a full run-through of a routine, there’s a thrill of adrenaline that’s really something special,” she says.
To learn more, visit meraquas.org.