December 15, 2012
Swimming. Gymnastics. Dancing. Synchronized swimming blends all three of these mediums into a sport that is both physically demanding and beautiful to behold. Paly is home to one elite synchronized swimmer with Olympic aspirations. She stands 4 feet 10 inches tall, with a quiet but assured voice, and she possesses heart, drive and dedication that outsize her petite frame. She is Elle Billman (‘15), whose list of achievements include making the 13-15 age group national team and winning gold at the Pan-American Games. She also survived leukemia.
Billman’s initial interest in synchronized swimming stemmed from a performance by a Bay Area synchronized swimming club she saw in elementary school.
“I went to go see a show that the Santa Clara Aquamaids performed,” Billman said. “They put on a show every year, kind of like a fundraiser to get people involved in synchronized swimming, and I saw it and thought it was really cool so I wanted to try it.”
That was eight years ago. Elle now spends six days a week year-round training with the Aquamaids, and her dedication and hard work are paying dividends. Last year, she tried out for and was appointed to the 13-15 U.S. Synchro national team, a highlight of her career.
“It’s the top 10 girls in the country, and I made the team, so that was really exciting,” Billman said. “We trained for four weeks together: In Colorado Springs at the Olympic training center for two weeks, then in Connecticut for two weeks. Then we went to Colombia for the Pan-American Games.”
The Pan-American Games are held every four years, in the years preceding the summer Olympics, and feature competitors from countries across the Americas. Billman and her teammates won gold for their age group, defeating competitors from countries such as Mexico, Venezuela and Brazil.
“We won, so that was pretty exciting,” Billman said.
Billman is not only a talented synchronized swimmer, but a compassionate teammate who inspires and encourages. Teammate Claire Barton, a junior at Los Gatos High School, cites Billman as an indispensable part of her experience as an Aquamaid.
“She made my transfer from another team easier and she welcomed me onto the team,” Barton said. “I can’t imagine the Santa Clara Aquamaids without her.”
Barton describes Billman as “responsible, friendly, and competitive,” which are necessary traits for an elite synchronized swimmer.
“She is very competitive and is a great leader on the team,” Barton said. “She is a driven, smart swimmer who drives almost twice the time as everybody else to get to practice every day, so she is very committed.”
Billman is not only devoted to her sport, but to her friends as well. She is seen as a ray of sunshine, bringing good vibes and positivity to every relationship.
“She’s such a sweet girl; she’s really outgoing and she’s always positive,” friend Carly Rudiger (‘15) said. “I’ve never heard her complain and she’s always happy and makes you smile.”
Her teammates are not the only ones who appreciate these aspects of Billman; her coaches recognize that she not only has a special talent but is a great teammate as well. Kendra Zanotto, who has coached Billman for three seasons, cites Billman’s ability to read a situation and respond appropriately as part of what makes her such a good teammate.
“Elle’s great becauses she fills so many roles,” Zanotto said. “At times she’s a leader, and when she is a leader she does it by acting. She also sees that there are times where other people need to lead and she is a great teammate and she supports her teammates in those situations as well.”
For the average athlete, Billman’s achievements are nothing short of admirable. However, Billman is no ordinary athlete. At the age of three, she was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a disease she would battle for two and a half years. Though Billman is now free of the cancer, some effects still linger.
“One side effect [of having leukemia] is that it takes me a little bit longer to learn things, so when we’re learning new choreography I have to do it a lot before I get it,” Billman said. “My coaches know [that I had leukemia] but they don’t treat me differently.”
Besides the challenges directly posed by the disease, Billman still lives with a small amount of uncertainty about her future. Because of the nature of her treatment, doctors are not yet sure of the full extent of the side effects.
“They don’t really know if it has long term effects,” Billman said of the medicine she was given as a toddler. “It’s not anything dramatic that will happen to me. It’s just minor things.”
However, Billman does not allow this uncertainty to hold her back. She has maintained a 4.0 GPA throughout high school, has many close friends and, of course, has excelled in synchronized swimming.
“If you look at her academically, or socially or athletically, you can’t tell [that she had leukemia],” sister Sara Billman (‘13) said.
Drawing on her personal experience with leukemia, Elle has become involved with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s High School Challenge to raise money for blood cancer research.
“I started volunteering [with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society] two summers ago, and then I heard that they they had the High School Challenge, and so I created Team Paly,” Billman said. “It’s high schools all around the Bay Area. The challenge is to see who can raise the most money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.”
Through an email campaign this fall, Billman and the other members of Team Paly were able to secure $7,000 in donations for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Billman plans on turning Team Paly into an official club on campus for the second semester.
Billman’s dreams for the future include graduating from Paly, attending Stanford and qualifying for the 2020 U.S. Olympic synchronized swimming team. With her set of skills, motivation and positive attitude, these goals are not out of reach.
“I think she has a great future,” Zanotto said. “She has fantastic skills and she’s developing more and more on the artistic side and she’s starting to pick up the more nuanced aspects of the sport. I think the coaching staff as a whole really sees a lot of growth and potential for her.”
“2020,” Sara said. “That’s her Olympics.”
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