Olympic Swimmer Follows Dream to Become a Doctor

A group of synchronized swimmers underwater holding the American Flag.

By Ian Neligh

Ballet leg, boost, cadence action, dolphin and egg beater.

There’s nothing easy about the movements associated with synchronized swimming — and according to Air Force 2nd Lt. Sarah Rodriguez it’s the perfect primer for medical school.

Currently in her second year at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USU), Rodriguez found herself drawn to the famously rigorous competition early on in life. She said the lessons learned from her coaches and competing at the Olympic level ultimately prepared her for her lifelong dream of becoming a doctor.

Today synchronized swimming, also called artistic swimming, is not the slow and lavish spectacle, often popularized by the Technicolor movies of Esther Williams during the ‘40s and ’50s. 

Rather, the sport now requires years of rigorous training from a young age and intense, flawless choreography. Synchronized swimming is fast, technical, and breathtaking — literally. Athletes spend entire days training in the pool, unable to touch the bottom, while sometimes holding their breath, as they perform dance and acrobatics with near perfect attention to detail.

A group of synchronized swimmers in formation
Air Force 2nd Lt. Sarah Rodriguez (top center, looking aside) performed in
synchronized swimming as a member of Team USA before attending the
Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences. (Photo Credit:
Courtesy of 2nd Lt. Sarah Rodriguez)
Rodriguez, originally from San Antonio Texas, grew up with a mom who was a nurse and a father who was a doctor, so the desire to practice medicine and help others took root early on. The goal of becoming a doctor herself was something she was passionate about but when she was 11 years old, she discovered a flier advertising the water-based sport which also grew to become her other passion.

“It just mentioned, ‘if you like team camaraderie, if you like the challenge of holding your breath, if you like to dance or act — come try synchronized swimming,’” Rodriguez said.

She gave it a shot and soon found herself at the pool with the other girls already on a local synchronized swimming team. Most had already been doing the sport for years.

“I knew how to keep my head up above water but beyond that, nothing,” Rodriguez joked. “Seeing people who were really good at it and knowing that I would have to work out really hard and figure out how to get there was really exciting.”

Because she enjoys a challenge, Rodriguez caught up to speed with the other students quickly.

“Being thrown in the deep end -- either you sink or you swim, literally,” Rodriguez said. “That is just kind of the way that I am.  I thrive well in that environment.”

The aquatic sport has been part of the Olympics since 1984 but has been around since the time of ancient Rome where swimmers did synchronized swimming for spectators in flooded colosseums. 

While intentionally making movements look carefree and effortless, Rodriguez describes the modern version of the sport requiring athletes to be something between rhythmic gymnasts and sequin-wearing Navy Seals.

She said many people don’t realize the swimmers may not touch the bottom of the pool while doing their routines even while throwing each other into the air.

“We have to generate the energy and the force using our limbs to stay afloat while doing all of these dance-like movements for up to five minutes,” Rodriguez said. “So it’s really like running a mile and holding your breath for half of it depending on how hard the routine is.”

Rodriguez was in the sport for 13 years and started in the solo performance category before a three-time Olympic coach approached her at a junior national competition and recruited her for the national team.

“I love this sport and that’s not the kind of opportunity you say no to,” Rodriguez said.

Synchronized swimmers' legs sticking out of a pool
USU medical student, Air Force 2nd Lt. Sarah Rodriguez, believes her experience in synchronized swimming helped lay the foundation for her transition to
medical school. (Photo Credit: Courtesy of 2nd Lt. Sarah Rodriguez)

Between her sophomore and junior years of high school, she moved to California to train and quickly rose through the ranks. In 2015, she attended the World Championships with Team USA, then became an alternate for the 2016 Olympic Duet going to Rio de Janeiro.

After that, she decided it was time to move on to pursue the second part of her plan, which was to become a doctor at USU.

“I want to serve the country because, in my mind, that is a continuation of Team USA,” Rodriguez said. “I put my whole teenage and early adult life into Team USA literally with synchro — so I thought what better way to serve than to serve on Team USA -- the United States Military.”

Rodriguez returned to Texas and attended college on a synchronized swimming scholarship while earning her degree in biology.  Becoming a physician has been her dream since she was nine years old.  

“Joining synchronized swimming forced me to cultivate what I think was already a natural fascination for me with the human body and with physiology, with pushing boundaries and understanding everything that the body is capable of,” Rodriguez said. 

She said becoming part of Team USA as a teenager helped her solidify all the characteristics that make up who she is today.  

According to Rodriguez, she still calls her old coach every few weeks to thank her for everything she taught over the years, lessons she’s found useful while attending medical school.

While her days with Team USA might be in the rearview mirror as she pursues becoming a physician, Rodriguez never strays far from the pool.

“I’m actually teaching my classmates some synchronized swimming moves, and others want to learn just basic lap swimming because they just want to stay fit,” Rodriguez said. “Oh my gosh, yes, I still find time (to swim) and I love it.”