Unsung Sports: Synchronized Swimming

By Mike Tierney, Special to Universal Sports

In their nose clips and costumes, wearing makeup and a paste-like substance in their hair, synchronized swimmers must require hours to prepare for their sport, right? Yes, but not as you would think. In peak training periods, these athletes spend six hours daily in the water choreographing their moves and two more on terra firma working on fitness.

Synchro swimming — think of dance and gymnastics while immersed — is a physically taxing sport in which participants must hold their breath for up to a minute. It is a relative Olympic newcomer that appeals to viewers more for artistry than athleticism.

Why makeup? Judges can better detect facial expressions to aid in scoring.

Why the sticky hair product? To keep those tresses in place.

HOW IT WORKS: Athletes perform a series of routines in concert with taped music. Judges rate them for grace and timing.

Olympic twosomes spend 2 minutes, 20 seconds on technical routines and 3 1/2 minutes on “free” routines. Teams of eight get 2:50 and 4 minutes, respectively. One set of judges grades the technical aspect, another handles the artistic score.

HISTORY LESSON: “Lap” swimmer Esther Williams missed out on the 1940 Games after qualifying when they were canceled because of World War II. Her Olympic legacy was magnified when synchronized swimming was added nearly a half-century later. Williams’ leading roles in movies that featured a sort of aqua ballet grew awareness of the sport.

The original Olympic events in 1984 were solo and duet. In ’96, solo was dropped in favor of team competition. The duet took a break in ’96 before resuming in 2000. Solo has not returned, thus burying the question, “How can a synchronized activity involve just one person?” (Answer: The sport’s name refers to the athlete synchronizing her movement with the music.)

FIRST OF ALL: When the Soviet Union declared it would boycott the ’84 Games, Olympic authorities recognized a shortage of competition to fill television air time. The organizing committee in Los Angeles was familiar with synchronized swimming, partly from Williams’ films, and it was added just 2 1/2 months before the opening ceremony.

REMEMBER THAT?: Kristen Babb-Sprague of the U.S. was awarded gold in 1992 after an appeals jury forbade a judge from changing her score for Sylvie Frechette that would have vaulted the Canadian into first place. The judge said she inadvertently punched in the wrong score. A year later, the international swim federation presented Frechette with a gold medal and allowed Babb-Sprague to keep hers.

Tammy Crow of the U.S. took part in the 2004 Games despite pleading no contest to misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter charges in the death of her boyfriend and a young student. Crow won a team bronze, then returned home to serve three months in jail.

STAR-GAZING: Anastasia, times two. The partners — last names, Davydova and Ermakova, from the same town in Russia — ruled in the last two Olympic duet competitions. They might be limited to the team division this summer, with Natalya Ischenko and Svetlana Romashina on the rise.

WHO’S GOT THE POWER: Russia. Following up their pair of firsts in the 2008 Games, the Russians swept all seven available golds in last year’s World Championships. China pocketed every silver medal but one, while Spain took a shine to bronze.

U-S-A, U-S-A: The sport’s Olympic pioneer was an American, Tracie Ruiz, who doubled up with golds in the solo and duet in 1984. Afterward, she married a football player and took up competitive bodybuilding, but returned to secure a solo silver in ’88.

That year, identical twins and best buds Karen and Sarah Josephson captured the duet silver, then stepped it up for the duet gold in ’92. The solo went to Babb-Sprague, who was married to major leaguer Ed Sprague but never took up baseball.

The U.S. claimed the inaugural team gold in ’96. All told, of 13 possible medals, America has collected nine (five gold, two silver, two bronze.)

This summer’s prospects are not as bright. At the last Worlds, the Americans came up medal-less.

AND THE NUMBER IS … 200.150. Though scoring methods have changed, Olympians have been graded on a scale where the ideal score is 200, 100 or 50. The only athlete to exceed the ideal was Carolyn Waldo of Canada with 200.150 in the 1988 solo.

OLYMPIC DATES: Aug. 5-7 (duet), Aug. 9-10 (team).

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