LONDON (Reuters) - Imagine yourself dancing the tango, for four minutes, in a three-meter 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.
Synchronized 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 meters 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.
Synchronized 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 synchronization. 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.
Synchronized 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 synchronized 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 synchronize with several other people, then you kind of have an idea of how difficult it is. And you have to make it look easy.”
Synchronized swimmers currently compete in the Olympics as pairs, for the duets, and as a group of eight for teams.
Working together is part of the challenge.
“You have to keep an eye on someone, you have to keep counting - you have to do a lot of things at the same time. You also have to remember all your corrections from training to bring them into the performance,” Katie Dawkins, of the British team, said. “So it is physically tiring, but mentally as well.”
With a chunk of points - as much as half in the “free”, or non-prescribed, routine - down to artistic impression, swimmers also work to achieve original choreography and expression. Entries in 2012 have included a human body themed routine with “brain” caps from the Brazilian duo, and a football routine, with referees’ whistles and soccer ball caps, from Canada.
The Russian team, the dominant force in the sport, say they keep their Olympic sequences under lock and key, demonstrating them only once - at closed-door event back home.
“As soon as we show our programmes, there are elements that are taken and copied,” gold medalist Svetlana Romashina said.
At the very top, the difference between gold, bronze and being left off the podium entirely, is down to the details.
Japanese-born Masayo Imura, coaching China, says that is the secret of her success in transforming the team into a top medal contender since they took team bronze at the Beijing Olympics.
“I take care of details,” she said. “Every little detail.”
Editing by Alison Williams