By Erica Jackson Curran
After 20 seasons as William & Mary’s synchronized swimming team coach, Barbara Gordon McNamee ’59 is a fixture of the school’s aquatics center. But long before she coached Tribe Synchro, she was a member of the Mary Washington College synchronized swimming team.
At 78, McNamee has been involved in the sport for most of her life, serving as a coach for multiple teams, a top-level executive with organizations like U.S. Synchronized Swimming, and a judge at international events, including the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona. It’s hard to believe that there was a time when she found herself heading in another direction.
“I was a competitive swimmer, and my coach always told me that he did not understand how someone with such a beautiful stroke could be so slow,” she remembered of her high school days when her family lived in Panama’s Canal Zone. Determined to stay in the water, she knew she’d found her niche when she saw her first synchro demo at the Pan American Games in Mexico in the 1950s, where she traveled with her swim team at age 14.
When her family moved to Arlington, Virginia, she helped organize a youth synchronized swimming group under a pool manager who also happened to be a coach at American University. She joined Mary Washington’s team, the Terrapins, as a freshman in 1955, performing a solo her very first year.
When she wasn’t in the Mary Washington pool, McNamee studied math and physics. That, she said, influenced her work with young swimmers. “The relationship to math and physics comes through in my coaching style,” she said. She has also taught kinesiology at W&M.
After graduating, McNamee stepped away from synchronized swimming to focus on raising her seven children, but she returned when one of her daughters discovered the sport at age 11. “She got me back into it as a chaperone, and then her coach wanted me to be a judge,” she said. From there, she began coaching and judging for teams and events around the country. “I mostly ended up doing whatever was needed wherever I was.”
Most recently, McNamee served as the competition manager for this summer’s USA Masters Games in Greensboro, North Carolina, and the chief referee for the Synchro America Open, where several participating countries presented their Olympic duets. In addition, she’s a member and secretary of the board of directors for U.S. Synchronized Swimming and a trustee and webmaster of the U.S. Synchronized Swimming Foundation.
McNamee always seems to be moving forward, making it her life’s work to help her beloved sport do the same – and she’s not slowing down anytime soon. “I don’t retire,” she said. “I just keep going.”