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In synch

An inside look at synchronized swimming and the tools needed to stay afloat.

Synchronicity is key in a sport that's a lot more than sparkles and smiles

The American synchronized swimming team practices before the start of the 2004 Athens Olympic Games. ((Donald Miralle/Getty Images))

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You see the gelled hair, theatrical face makeup and high-beam smiles and you ask yourself, "Is synchronized swimming really a sport?" It's a silly question, really. Synchronized swimming is as physically demanding and competitive as anything else at the Olympic Games. If anything, synchro's problem isn't about legitimacy, it's about perception. Few people understand what is involved and how it is judged because the sport has so little visibility outside the Olympic setting.

The Complete Athlete

Synchronized swimming borrows from a myriad of other disciplines, both sporting and artistic, and as a result the 40-hours-a-week regimen of the athletes is the exemplar of cross-training, according to Jaimie Early, former national programs and projects manager of Synchro Canada.

Team Japan performs their free routine during the Athens Games. ((Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images))

"They are not only working on their choreography and their routines, but they also do speed swimming and work on their general aquatic fitness," said Early. "They do weight training and pilates for strength and yoga for flexibility. There is training with a diving coach because so much of the team event now is done in the air with jumps and lifts."

Synchro swimmers also draw upon non-traditional resources such as dance, competitive cheerleading and the graceful forms mastered by the performers of Cirque du Soleil. International competition has fuelled the need to draw upon different disciplines, Early said.

"It's really been an evolution since 1984," she added. "The team event has become much more athletic and dynamic. It's almost an extreme sport when you consider how high out of the water the girls are being thrown. And yet they have to sustain the grace and artistry of traditional synchro."

Synchronized swimmers need to be in constant motion: there is no touching the bottom of the pool, no respite during any of the routines. As a result, injuries are common in the shoulders and hip and knee joints. Black eyes and broken toes are also an occasional occupational hazard with today's increased emphasis on jumps and lifts.

Teams receive a one point penalty for touching the bottom of the pool (Canada received this penalty at the 2005 World Championships) and a one point penalty for remaining on deck too long after the music begins.

Judgement

Synchro is judged according to a format and criteria similar to figure skating judging, although usually with less intrigue and controversy. Both the duets and teams of eight perform a technical routine and a longer free routine. Each routine is judged on a combination of technical merit (execution, synchronization difficulty) and artistic impression (choreography, music interpretation and presentation).

High and low scores from judges are thrown out. The technical and artistic scores are each worth 50 percent of the total routine score. Similarly, for the final score, the technical and free routines are worth 50 percent each. (Please see the Synchro Glossary for descriptions of different movements and positions.)

"The technical score is multiplied by six and the artistic score by four before they are added together, producing the final score for the routine. The free routine is worth 65 per cent of the final score, and the technical routine 35 per cent." is the problem. It's actually 50% for tech and 50% for artistic scores for total routine score, and technical and free routines are worth 50% each for the final score.

Where the real action is

Fans of the athleticism of synchronized swimming have been quick to suggest that the real action in the pool is occurring underwater and that if viewers could see the effort involved they might develop a better appreciation for the sport. But synchro is meant to be watched from above, and what the sport's champions would really like is a camera that captures what the audience sees.

Most of the action is underwater. ((Donald Miralle/Getty Images))

"It's something that television has failed to capture, because too often they focus on one part of the pool or one of the swimmers," said Early. "But it's more impressive when you can see everything, because then you appreciate just how precise the timing and formations are."

It's also impressive because "mirroring" - where two swimmers face each other and do a mirror image rather than a copy of the other's moves - is not permitted. So try to clear your head of the image of Martin Short and Harry Shearer from "Saturday Night Live" pointing at each other and saying, "Hey you, I know you."

Seeing the whole picture from a high angle would allow a greater appreciation of how much of the pool the swimmers are covering.

"People don't appreciate just how fast the girls are swimming. They are propelling themselves all around the pool and doing it while keeping precise patterns in unison," said Early.

Synchronicity and symmetry

Judges train their eyes on the precision of movements, the height out of the water attained in jumps and lifts and, of course, how closely the swimmers' movements follow the music and each other. Those are all things that underwater movement is working toward.

Synchronicity and symmetry are so important that some teams and duets take them to a genetic extreme. In 1992, both the American gold medal winners (Karen and Sarah Josephson) and the Canadian silver medal winners (Penny and Vicky Vilagos) were identical twin sisters.

The women from the Russian teams that have dominated since 1998 are reportedly selected partly on the basis of how similar in stature, build and appearance they are. It is perhaps that emphasis on appearance that loses sports purists, but like figure skating and gymnastics, aesthetics are an integral part of any sport in which judging is involved.

"What you're really doing when you're smiling is selling yourself," Early said. You're trying to convince the judges and the people in the audience that yours is the best performance."

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