A Conversation with Jamaica’s Synchro Head Coach about Beyoncé’s film: Black is King

The Island Aquatics Synchro Club, based in Kingston, Jamaica is coached by double Olympic Gold Medalist Olga Novokshenova.

Sean Paul’s Manager, Steve ‘Urchin’ Wilson, otherwise known as Brand New Machine sat down with Olga Novokshchenova,  President of The Island Aquatics Synchro Club to discuss how the Jamaican Synchronized Swim Team was featured in Beyoncé’s new film project: Black is King.

Fun fact: Sean Paul and Beyoncé collaborated on the hit pop song “Baby Boy” back in 2003. In 2001 Steve “Urchin” Wilson signed on to help pilot the career of multi-platinum Grammy winner Sean Paul. He spent the last 15 years traveling to over 100 countries and presiding over logistics, booking, touring, promotion, and recording for the Dancehall superstar. “I’m an advocate for promoting the entertainment and sports industries. We need to showcase the very best of our Jamaican talent and however I can use my platform to do so, I will.’ Steve “Urchin,” Wilson says.

Head Coach Olga Novokshchenova with  The Island Aquatics Synchro Club. They were featured in Beyonce's film: Black is King
Head Coach Olga Novokshchenova with  The Island Aquatics Synchro Club. They were featured in Beyonce’s film: Black is King

 Steve Wilson: How did you get interested in synchro and how did you end up in Port Antonio, Jamaica?
Olga: I’m originally from Russia. I used to compete at the Olympic level in synchronized swimming representing my country.  In 2006, I moved to Jamaica with my husband and we decided to reside in Port Antonio.  I decided to start my synchro swim team in 2007, with one swimmer and slowly others joined.

Steve Wilson: So wait for a second,  you were on the Russian Olympic Synchronized Swimming team?
Olga: Yes! So I represented Russia in three Olympics for synchronized swimming. In 1996 and we got Gold medals in 2000 and 2004.

Steve Wilson: Congratulations on being a double gold medalist. That’s impressive! How many members do you have currently in Island Aquatics Swim Club (IASC) and how many competitions have you participated in so far?

Olga: Right now, we have nine members who have competed internationally and then about thirteen or fourteen beginners learning how to swim. We’ve been competing internationally since 2009, and the easiest place to compete is in Florida because of its proximity to Jamaica. Our best results to date were in 2015 when our duet twelve and under won in the Central American and Caribbean and Competitions Championship. They placed fourth in UANA and Nyouka Baugh placed fourth in the UANA (Pan American Artistic Swimming Championships) competition after the USA, Canada, and Mexico.

Jamaican synchronized swimmer practicing her routine in the pool

Steve Wilson: That’s some powerful results! So now for the million-dollar question. How did you get involved with Beyoncé’s “Black Is King” film project?
Olga:  A year ago, an agent called and said,  “I’m working with A-class artists and one of them requested black synchronized swimmers. We’ve searched through the United States and hardly found any. ” So I was like I have ten, but most of them are between 7-12 years-old. I think it was like Wednesday, I said when and where do you need them and she said Los Angeles on Friday, so ONE day from now. I said okay, but how do I know that this is real? They emailed the non-disclosure agreement and they asked us to send pictures and videos of the swimmers with their clothing sizes. So, Friday, I told the girls to get ready but do not count on it too much because we don’t know if it will happen. We were in touch with the agent, they kept calling with updates. So late  Thursday night, they say it looks like it won’t happen tomorrow. I said girls go back to school, forget about it.

Then they called me a few days later and said Beyoncé ​, saw the girl’s photos and videos, loves them and wants everybody to come– the whole team! And I said you realize that I sent the very best on the team. Everybody else is young. She said yes, we want all of them to join us. I said okay, when do we fly? They said tomorrow.  They said they are going to send the parents a non-disclosure agreement as well. Still, in disbelief, we decided we weren’t going to do anything unless we felt safe.

So I called my old swimming mate in Los Angeles and asked what should we do. She said this is Los Angeles, it’s not like the Amazon jungle or The Middle East. She said when we land, to call her, and she’d give us an hour to get to the hotel and if we didn’t call her after one hour, then she would call the police. So we said okay, we are going to go.

Steve Wilson: That’s a lot to take on your shoulders. I can’t even imagine the nerves everyone was experiencing, excited but still very wary. So what happened next?

Olga: We had to leave Port Antonio at 3:00 am to catch the flight to LA, so we didn’t have much time to prepare. We had an emergency meeting with the parents to get their written permission to take the trip. Then when we got to the airport we saw Jamaican synchronized swimmer Nicole Chin Sue. She is now part of The Aqualillies Club in LA. She said she knows the coach, the swimmers, and said they were already starting practicing and getting ready for filming. So we relaxed.

Steve Wilson: That is an intense story. I can just imagine how nervous the girls and the families were.  So, tell me about the actual filming in Los Angeles. Did you meet Beyonce? How was it for the girls? Tell me about that experience.

Olga: They filmed for two days. On the first day, we waited forever. The film’s location was at a mansion with a pool and a lot of different people. There were singers, artists, children, and adults – everything. They organized lots of different costume changes and as one group comes films, they leave. The girls only got one practice in the pool, which was very cold, but they managed. The choreographer provided clear instructions on what he wanted to see in the water. Then the coach from Aqualillies sent videos and instructions. They created a short routine and then on the second day in the evening that’s when Beyoncé came down to the pool with the girls and filmed.

Everyone was so excited! They finished pretty quickly because she realized how cold the pool was. She also knew clearly what she wanted. Every shot was done with repetitions, but well-organized. There was a child protection rights representative monitoring because four of the girls were minors.  She was very strict about the littlest one in the group was only  7-years-old. She said she can only work till 6:00 pm. At exactly 6:00 pm, she had to leave, even though she wanted to stay. The whole experience was very professional – very well organized, we were treated very well and even stayed in a nice hotel. They also provided transportation to and from the hotel.

Steve Wilson: I can imagine how excited the girls were! How did you keep it a secret? Did you know what it was for (the Black Is King film project)

Olga: I didn’t know exactly what it was for. We only had less than one day to just get ready and leave they didn’t have time to tell everybody. We explained to the girls that it was important to be professional because we had signed a non-disclosure agreement. Unfortunately, phones were not allowed on the set so we didn’t get any pictures or videos.

So what’s next for IASC? What would you like to see happen next?
Olga: Well, most of all my dream would be to have a public swimming pool be built in Port Antonio. We started at one that was only 7 meters long and 3 meters wide and 1 ½ deep. We’ve swum at different hotel pools and private houses but nothing quite fit. I had to sell my apartment in Moscow and build the pool we are currently using on my property. The problem is that it’s far outside of Portland so the girls have to either take private taxis or walk up the hill. If we could get a public swimming pool in Port Antonio, believe me, so many kids would take swimming lessons, speed swimming, and synchronized swimming classes.

Support the Island Aquatic Synchro club

About Steve “Urchin” Wilson
After getting his start at Bob Marley’s legendary Tuff Gong record label as a marketing exec, Steve spent 10 years cross training in every imaginable area in the entertainment industry including a stint as studio manager for the GeeJam Studios where he oversaw studio sessions for The Roots, Common, The Gorillaz, No Doubt & The Jungle Brothers amongst others.

 In 2001 this Jamaican trailblazer signed on to help pilot the dizzying career of multi platinum Grammy winner Sean Paul.
He spent the last 15 years traveling to over 100 countries and presiding over logistics, booking, touring, promotion & recording for the Dancehall superstar.
While honing his role as a reggae ambassador Wilson simultaneously plotted to bring EDM & house music to his Homebase of Kingston via his Brand New Machine party series that saw super DJs like Diplo, Bob Sinclar, CongoRock & Toddla T spin in Jamaica for the first time. He has gone on to export the BNM party concept to Montego Bay, Cayman, London & New York City.
Steve is also partners in FSOR Music (Future Sound Of Reggae) a boutique label that has featured releases from Mink Jo, Transdub Massiv, Naomi Cowan, Jesse Royal & Craigy T amongst others.
Most recently he was one of the local partners of the initial staging of the critically acclaimed Tmrwtday Culture Festival in Negril, Jamaica.
*Denizen party series downtown