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Subversive Sirens: Synchronized swimmers combine aquatics, social justice

The Minnesota-based group, which is competing in this week's Gay Games, includes messages of LGBTQ rights, black liberation and body positivity in its routines.
IMAGE: Subversive Sirens synchronized swim team
Defying stereotypes, the Minnesota-based Subversive Sirens synchronized swim team trains to make a splash at the Gay Games in Paris.NBC News

The Subversive Sirens is not your typical synchronized swimming team. The Minnesota-based group is just as focused on social justice as it is on aquatics.

“We are here for black liberation, we are here for body positivity, we are here for queer visibility and we're here for equity and aquatics,” Signe Harriday, one of the team members, told NBC News.

Formed in 2014, the group consists of five women in their 30s and 40s, most of whom are women of color and identify as LGBTQ. The group has recently ramped up its training schedule to take its underwater choreography and unique message to the Gay Games in Paris, which runs until Aug. 12.

“We’ve been swimming at least like three times a week, but a lot of times more often than that, and then as the competition's gotten closer, every day,” team member Zoe Holloman said.

Tana Hana, another Subversive Siren, said the Gay Games is the perfect platform for the group, because the event’s ethos is that everyone is equal, and no one has to qualify to compete.

“It’s taking everybody at where they are,” she said. “It is all abilities, all bodies, everybody where they are coming together and being visible.”

“I think body acceptance is on the individual level, but bodily autonomy underpins every struggle for liberation — whether it is for anti-poverty measures or for anti-racism or anything that we are fighting to actually build equity and actually true liberation and freedom,” Hana added.

The Subversive Sirens will be competing in two events at the Gay Games: the free combination competition and the technical duet competition. Both will be performed to Prince music.

“We’re from Minnesota, so we sort of eat, breathe, swim Prince,” Harriday said. “It made only perfect sense that if we were going to be representing part of Minnesota, that we needed to bring the most amazing musician ever — Prince — with us.”

The message behind the team’s technical duet performance will be about black liberation, and the message behind its free combination program will be about body positivity.

“I grew up with messages that my body would not be right for synchronized swimming,” team member Suzy Messerole said. “What's been surprising for me is that I talk a good talk about my body, but I think inside those shaming messages of growing up a plus size woman are still in there, and I feel like I kind of release a little bit more of those messages every time I swim.”

The Subversive Sirens are focused on social justice activism both inside and outside of the pool, and Harriday say the two go hand-in-hand.

“All of our lives are really, for the most part, working on initiatives that are trying to advance liberation in a variety of different sectors of work,” she explained. “Being able to be that in the pool gives us sustenance, gives us energy and strength so that we can go out and do that work.”

“The Subversive Sirens,” she continued, “allows us to show up more authentically in the work we do outside of the pool.”