The Olympics are well underway, and now that we have our beach volleyball, steeplechase, decathlon, and trampoline facts down pat, it’s time to shine the light on the pool. But sorry, Ryan Lochte’s rock hard abs didn’t make the cut for this article. Here are 15 cool facts on the underdog of pool sports — synchronized swimming, an aquatic event that fuses gymnastics, endurance, strength, and… horse cartilage?

Photo by Adam Scotti

Sync or Swim — The Need-to-Know

  1. It’s “synchro.” Synchronized swimming — called “synchro” by those in the know — is a blend of meticulously coordinated acrobatics, swimming, and dance. Synchro requires tremendous grace, core strength, flexibility, breath control, split-second timing, and endurance. Don’t be deceived by the glitzy performance and lipsticked smiles on the athletes’ faces — this sport is anything but easy.
  2. Ballet, no more. Synchro began as “water ballet” in the late 19th century. It was later introduced to the US by the glass tank performer Annette Kellerman. The sport was further pioneered by Katherine Curtis, who fine-tuned the water acrobatics. Though official competitions launched in the 1930’s, synchro was not included in the Olympics until the 1984 Los Angeles Games, displacing women’s softball.
  3. Men need not apply. Synchronized swimming is one of the two female-only sports in the London 2012 Olympics. (Rhythmic gymnastics is the other.)
  4. Tea for two… or an entire team. The 2012 Olympics offer two different events within the synchronized swimming discipline: team and duet. The team event comprises 8 athletes, while the duets include, well, two athletes. Solo events have existed in previous Olympics. How can a solo performance be synchronized, you ask? The idea was that the performer was in sync with the music.
  5. There’s technique, and then there’s the creative part. There are two parts to an Olympic synchro performance. First is the technical routine, where athletes must precisely execute a required series of movements and positions. Next up is the free routine, which is set to music that the swimmers can hear underwater, thanks to high-tech underwater speakers. In the team competition, the scores from the technical and free routines are added to determine the final standings. In the duet competition, however, there is a preliminary event scored by combining the outcomes from the technical and free routines, followed by a second round free routine (performed by the top 12 pairs from the preliminaries). The score from the second free routine is then added to the preliminary technical score to determine the duet winners.
  6. Check out the deck! Before every free routine, swimmers have ten seconds for deckwork, or the choreographed movements that unfold poolside before the athletes elegantly enter the water. Though deckwork does not gain teams any points, it does set the mood for the routine. Once in the water, swimmers are confined to a 12 meter-by-12 meter competition area that is at least nine feet deep and hovers at just about 26 degrees Celsius (or about 78.8 degrees Fahrenheit).
  7. Ten judges, 100 points possible. Scores, on a scale of 100, are awarded based on technical execution, choreography, synchronization, difficulty of movements, music interpretation (in the free routine), and manner of presentation. Points are doled out by ten judges who are split into two panels: One panel assesses routine technicality, and the other artistic impression. Smile for the judges!
  8. No touching! The pool bottom is off-limits during performances. Instead, synchro swimmers must continuously tread water in an eggbeater fashion to free up the arms and make the illusion that they are comfortably standing. Touching the bottom results in a two point deduction.
  9. Open wide. Synchro swimmers keep their eyes on the prize — even underwater — where they stay wide-eyed to better navigate the sub-surface elements of the routine. While goggles are forbidden, nose clips are a-OK. Most swimmers opt for nose clips to help with holding their breath. (Ahem, you try treading water upside down!), and many keep a spare pair tucked away in their suits. Some swimmers can hold their breath for more than three minutes, but most synchro routines require no more than one minute of continuous breath-holding.
  10. Cover up. No string bikinis or tankinis allowed. FINA (the international aquatics federation) rules require that swimsuits be of “good moral taste” (read: not transparent or skimpy) and suit design typically complements the music selection — no patent leather suits paired with Beethoven’s first symphony!
  11. This takes strengths — lots of it. Synchro routines incorporate a series of twists, pointed toes, splits, lifts, and more. Some well-known static positions include the crane, ballet leg double, side fishtail, knight, flamingo, and split positions. Other key moves include sculling — underwater hand movements that keep the body afloat (treading water with arms, basically) — and the back layout, where swimmers lay face up and flat against the water’s surface while supporting themselves by sculling. And don’t forget — when teammates lift one another, they are not touching the pool bottom! Talk about core strength.
  12. Practice, practice, practice. Synchronized swimmers are thought to practice more than most other Olympic athletes. They spend six days per week honing their craft, and upwards of eight hours per day: six in the pool (imagine the pruney fingers), and two hours on land cross training.
  13. Time to get slick. Most fresh-out-of-the-pool hairstyles resemble that of tousled wet dogs. This is not the case for synchronized swimmers, who prep by slicking back their hair using Knox, a type of gelatin made of horse cartilage (redefining the meaning of ponytail…). This equine pomade keeps the wispies at bay during the competition, and only melts away after a hot shower.
  14. All that glitters is gold. Competitors layer on water-proof makeup to ensure that judges can see their expressive faces throughout the performance, cashing in on presentation points. Though the make-up’s intensity is frightening up close, it surely accentuates the swimmers’ emotive features in the water.
  15. Watch for the stars. The United States hopefuls for this year’s Olympics include the duet pair Mariya Koroleva and Mary Killman, who will face the reigning Olympic and world champs from Russia. Russia is set on maintaining its winning streak: its teams have won every Olympic gold medal since the 2000 games.

Have you ever done synchronized swimming? Have you even heard of it? Share your experiences in the comments below!