Imagine yourself dancing the tango, for four minutes, in a three-metre deep pool, in full make-up and in perfect time with seven others. Upside down, without ever touching the bottom. Now make it look effortless.
Synchronised swimming is one of the most easily maligned of the less common Olympic sports. With its nose clips, sequins and heavily gelatined hair, it is a far cry from the overt power, aggression and testosterone of the 100 metres final.
But, as the swimmers do not tire of telling reporters on the pool deck, it takes a lot of work to make it look this easy.
Synchronised swimmers train for longer than many Olympic athletes — as much eight to 10 hours a day, six days a week. They spend long hours in the pool, working on flexibility, endurance, sometimes swimming with weights of up to 3kg to gain the strength required to keep themselves high in the water, their arms free for graceful balletic movements.
“We work six hours in the morning and another four in the afternoon,” said Russian swimmer Alexandra Patskevich, dancing in the team segment.
Russia, famous for precision and technique, have won every Olympic gold since 2000 and took all seven golds in the 2011 world championships.
“It is very tough, but in our sport there is no other way – everything depends on synchronisation. There are eight of us and we have to be identical, in everything we do,” she said, removing some of the dozens of pins holding in an intricate, gelled bun and gold-sequined hair piece.
Synchronised swimming, which has its origins in the water ballets popular in the 1900s, builds on swimming basics, such as front crawl or backstroke, and adds balletic arm movements, backflips or leg raises to create carefully choreographed routines, often with acrobatic lifts and floating patterns.
Much of the work — as much as two-thirds of the three or four minute sequences — is under water, a lung-busting amount for routines that have become increasingly fast.
“It is obviously very difficult. Just trying to tread water — how difficult is that — and that is when you are trying to get your oxygen back in,” said Adele Carlsen, a former synchronised swimmer who now works with the British team.
“If you imagine doing an 800m run, holding your breath for two-thirds of it, with power movements in there and trying to synchronise with several other people, then you kind of have an idea of how difficult it is. And you have to make it look easy.”