How to Gel Your Hair for a
Synchronized Swimming Competition
Your friends might not be easily convinced when you tell them that you don’t use the bottom of the pool to do synchro, but what they really aren’t going to believe is how you slick your hair back with for competition: unflavored gelatin. Crazy but true.
Gelling your hair the first few times can be daunting, and the task will never become what a reasonable person considers quick and easy. But you can learn to do your hair more efficiently—and perhaps most importantly, avoid the dreaded peeling, Jell-O head effect.
What You Will Need
Unflavored gelatin envelopes: You'll need about 2-4 per person.
Cup: The cup should be able to hold up to very hot water.
Hot water: Hopefully the meet manager will provide this.
Hair brush: The regular kind is perfect.
Rat-tail comb: The kind of comb with a long, pointy handle.
Hair bands/ponytail holders: Use bigger ones for all your hair and smaller ones for braids.
Hair nets: That match your hair color.
Bobby pins: That also match your hair color.
Hair pins (optional): Not the same as bobbies, hair pins have two squiggly sides and are always slightly open.
Paint brush: A hair coloring brush, a kitchen basting brush, or even a small paint brush.
A small towel: A slimy drip can sneak past even the most veteran of gellers. A towel will keep it off your neck and body. It’s also nice to have when you’ve just climbed out of the pool to catch the mixture of gel and pool water that will inevitably drip down the back of your neck before it dries into uncomfortable stickiness.
Bag or carrying case: Keep all your gelling products together in one place.
A parent or teammate: Especially when you’re new to the art of gelling, an extra pair of hands can really help.
A Bobby Pin Warning
Andrea Nott, 2008 Olympian, didn’t mind reusing the same bobby pins throughout a long meet or even from one meet to the next. Synchronized swimmers in the U.S. don’t enjoy the same kinds of salaries as more famous U.S. athletes (who usually play the more publicized ball-sports), so saving a few bucks recycling pins seemed like a good idea.
But then, the bobby pins started to rust. Finally, after one particularly long competition and after all the gel was washed out, Nott realized that rust had left stains on her blonde hair! Bobby pin-shaped tarnish marks lingered for a week.
If you’re not blonde, then you’ll probably never even know if this can happen to you. But a few new packs of bobby pins for each competition are always good idea. For the dedicated recycler, spread the pins out to dry on a towel before putting them back in your gelling supplies bag.
Here’s a step-by-step guide to take the anxiety out of the gelling process:
A smooth and tightly pulled-back ponytail will make the whole job easier, so get your hair wet before you start.
If your team or headpiece requires a high bun, bend over forward and use gravity to help get all your hair going the right direction. If a high bun is not required, you can make your ponytail just sitting or standing up.
First use the brush and then the rat-tail comb to make your hair go as smoothly into the ponytail as possible.
Secure it with your bigger hair band.
Start by dividing your ponytail into two sections, then braid each one and secure it with a smaller hair band.
Wrap one braid around the base of your ponytail to make the first half of your bun. Hold it in place with either hair pins or bobby pins. (Hair pins seem to go in a little easier.) Three should do it.
Wrap the remaining braid around the first one.
Here’s where you need a little bit of an artist’s eye—wrap and shape your braids so your bun looks as bun-like as possible. Use a few more pins to secure it.
Next, you need the hair net (It’s not just for cafeteria ladies!). If you skip it, little wisps of hair will come loose while you swim and hang down or stick up. Wrap the hair net around your bun, just like you would a hair band, as many times as possible, so that it fits tightly.
Secure the edge of it to the base of your bun with pins all around the bottom to hold the edge of the net down.
For Short or Thin Hair
If your hair is short or very thin, your bun might be too small or impossible to make at all.
Option 1: Use a ponytail holder that has fake hair already attached to it that matches your own hair color. Instead of making braids, tie it around your ponytail. Tuck the ends underneath towards the ponytail holder and cover with a hair net just like in Step 2.
Option 2: Use a bun form. Bun forms are kind of a rare item, but can usually be found at beauty supply stores. They tend to be too big for the size bun you want, so consider cutting it in half.
You will want to skip the braids if using this option, as well. Put the bun form around your ponytail and pull your hair through the hole in the middle.
Tip your head forward so that the center of your bun is pointing straight up. Spread your hair evenly around it, so as much of it as possible is covered by your real hair.
Then, put another hair band around the base of the bun form and your ponytail to tuck the loose hair in underneath.
Wind the loose ends around the bottom, secure with hair pins, and use the hair net just like in Step 2.
If you’re making gel for one, empty three quarter ounce envelopes of the gel powder into a cup.
Add hot water very slowly, using just a few tablespoons at first and then in teaspoon size increments after the first pour.
Stir with the pointy end of your rat-tail comb or a piece of plastic silverware.
You’ll know you’ve achieved the perfect, slimy consistency if you lift your stirring tool-of-choice out of the gel and a smooth stream runs back down into the cup. If it falls into the cup in big blobs or runs very slowly, add a little more water. If it makes individual drips, then it’s too watery.
Unfortunately, this is the point of no return. You can always add water to gel, but adding gel to water causes globules that no amount of stirring can remedy. In an emergency it will still serve its purpose, but the result just looks unprofessional.
No Hair Shall Come Un-gelled
Courtney Stewart, 2004 and 2008 Canadian Olympian, had her first gelling experience at the age of seven. Her mom was so nervous about making sure little Stewart's hair stayed out of her face for her first synchro meet that she layered it on thick!
By the time Stewart’s hair was done, she had three coats of gel—each containing three packets worth of gelatin! Three days and umpteen showers later, she finally got it all out.
Now is not the time for a quick run to the snack bar. The gel will only get more difficult to work with as it cools. Be careful not to burn yourself, but remember that the reason the gelatin methods works at all is because it solidifies as it cools.
Wrap your small towel around your neck and start painting the gel onto your hair from the very front, center of your hairline to your bun.
Gel the whole top portion of your hair, run the comb through it to smooth it out, and then paint over the top of that section again.
Repeat the painting-combing-painting process for each side of your head, ending on the back. Remember to gel your bun too, especially if it is not covered by your headpiece.
Now How Do I Get It Out?
The easiest way to get out your gel is to shower using the warmest water possible while still remaining comfortable. The gel should melt out. Some synchro swimmers like to use a comb in the shower to help speed up the process, but be patient or you could end up pulling out hair that was too young to go down the drain.