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A Leg Up on The Scoffers

Forget the Sequins, Say Synchronized Swimmers. This Is a No-Frills Sport.

By Peter Carlson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 27, 2004; Page C01

ATHENS, Aug. 26 -- Now that the minor sports are out of the way -- your swimming, your gymnastics, your tennis and baseball -- the world is finally getting a chance to witness the greatest of all Olympic events:

Synchronized swimming.

The United States team competes in Thursday's synchronized swimming technical routine. (Lefteris Pitarakis - AP)

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Go ahead and laugh if you like, but synchro is nothing less than a ritual reenactment of the epic drama of human evolution. Just as the earliest of our one-celled ancestors emerged from the primordial seas eons ago, synchonized swimmers emerge from the murky depths of a chlorinated sea -- and they do it in style, popping out legs first, kicking like a chorus line of Rockettes.

It's a glorious Vegas version of evolution, complete with music and sequins and leggy gals in bathing suits, all kicking at the same time.

It's a sight to behold -- and no other Olympic sport can compare.

On Wednesday night, the synchro duet teams completed their competition before thousands of fans cheering in the moonlight at the outdoor synchro pool. The Russian pair won the gold, Japan took silver and the U.S. duet -- Alison Bartosik and Anna Kozlova -- won bronze.

Glorious as they were, the duets are merely a warmup for the main event: a spectacular two-night team competition. It began Thursday with competitors from the United States and seven other nations performing a three-minute "technical program." And it will soar to a spectacular climax Friday night with each team putting on its best show -- a four-minute, no-holds-barred, pedal-to-the-metal, pull-out-all-the-stops synchro pièce de résistance designed to dazzle the judges into submission.

Here comes Italy, the first team in Thursday's competition -- eight beauties marching out to the platform in neon-bright pink-and-green bathing suits, heads held high, red lips forming huge smiles. They strike a dramatic pose, then suddenly start building two human pyramids. Now drums begin to beat and the two cutie-pies who are perched atop the pyramids dive into the pool, followed by the rest of the team.

The crowd goes wild: "I-tal-ia! I-tal-ia!"

Underwater, the swimmers form another pyramid, three people high. With a superhuman thrust of their legs, they surge upward, propelling two women high into the air. They do back flips as they dive back under water.

The crowd goes crazy: "I-tal-ia! I-tal-ia!"

And now comes a stupendous sight: Eight pairs of legs pop out of the water simultaneously! Sixteen shapely, shiny, shimmering disembodied legs kicking in perfect harmony! First this way! Then that way! Then this way again!

It's a symphony of legs! A cavalcade of legs! A flotilla of legs!

It's awesome! It's amazing! It's . . . It's . . .

Don't let the sequins and the makeup fool you. Synchronized swimming is a brutal sport.

"I've had my nose broken and my eardrum broken," says Kozlova, 31, who performs in both the duet and team competitions. "We swim really close together and lots of time we hit each other with a foot or an elbow. It's not quite like football, but it's a contact sport."

"I had my nose broken," says Lauren McFall, 24, the U.S. team captain. "We were doing a routine and we changed it and everybody swam diagonally and I forgot and swam straight and a heel hit me in the nose and broke it. I didn't know it and I kept swimming and then I realized I was just gushing blood everywhere, so I decided to stop."

Blows to the head aren't the only dangers in synchro. There are also dislocated knees from the strain of the constant "eggbeater" leg motion used to tread water. And shoulder injuries from lifting teammates and hurling them into the air. And there's also the problem of oxygen, or lack thereof. Synchro swimmers spend a lot of time upside down underwater. This sometimes causes problems, such as passing out and sinking like a stone.

"Your eyes roll back in your head and you sink to the bottom," says McFall.

"If you turn your head back too far, it kind of does something and you can lose consciousness," says Kozlova. "You just come up and start convulsing."

"This doesn't happen a lot," adds her teammate Becky Jasontek, reassuringly.

"And we can save each other," Kozlova says, smiling.

In a four-minute synchro routine, a swimmer is usually underwater for at least three minutes. To avoid passing out, they learn to conserve air by slowing their heart rate.

"If you learn how to relax your body inside," Kozlova says, "you use less oxygen."

"You learn to slow your heart rate down so you can hold your breath," says McFall. "But the hardest part isn't being underwater for a long period of time, it's coming up for only two or three seconds to take in air. You're losing oxygen and you have two seconds to recover all the oxygen you lost. It's like running a race and only breathing every 30 seconds."

When a synchro swimmer finally does pop out of the water for a quick breath, she can't simply open her mouth and suck in wind because . . . synchro is showbiz and she has to keep smiling like a Miss America contestant or a campaigning pol.

"Our coach gets upset if she sees us taking a big breath," says Jasontek.

"You have to learn to take a big breath while smiling," says Kozlova.

By the end of a synchro performance, a swimmer's oxygen-deprived muscles tremble with exhaustion. "There's so much lactic acid running through your muscles," says Canadian synchro swimmer Courtenay Stewart, "that you're struggling to control your body."

Synchronized swimmers suffer for their art. For years, they slave away, practicing eight hours a day, six days a week at their training facilities in Santa Clara, Calif. -- alternating long hours of swimming with sit-ups, push-ups, weightlifting, gymnastics and jazz dancing. They smear their faces with diaper rash cream to protect their skin from sun and water. They pinch their nostrils shut with nose clips. They slick their hair back with Knox gelatin to keep it out of their eyes.

And they do it all for art.

In this overcommercialized world, where every human skill is commodified and sold, synchro may be the last bastion of l'art pour l'art -- art for art's sake. These woman don't get rich or famous. They endure their travails for a shot at an Olympic medal and a chance to wow the crowds with a glorious row of legs popping out of the pool all at the same time.

In other words, they do it all for us. Are we grateful? No, we're not. We scoff, we mock, we snicker. We see synchronized swimming and what pops to mind? That old 1984 "Saturday Night Live" skit with Martin Short and Harry Shearer doing synchro, wearing life preservers and goofy plastic water wings.

The women of synchro say they laugh at the "SNL" skit, too. But they get a tad testy when people compare synchro to the "water ballets" that Esther Williams used to perform in old MGM movies.

"They think we're doing old Esther Williams things," Kozlova says, "but it's not even comparable."

"Anything that has music and sequins, people don't think it's a sport, but it is," McFall says. "Water ballet is very simple. Our sport is more athletic and much faster. It's more like gymnastics in the water than ballet in the water."

McFall has just one suggestion for all you scoffers and laughers:

"Try to spend a day in the pool with us," she says. "Just try it."

They just keep coming.

The Spanish! The Japanese! The Greeks! The Russians!

Each team has eight lovely bathing beauties! Each bathing beauty has two lovely legs!

The legs kick. The legs twirl. The legs point, wave, dance and spin. And they do it all in perfect symmetry.

And that, sports fans, is why they call it synchronized swimming.

Here come the Americans. They march to the platform, smiles shimmering beneath their nose clips, as the crowd chants "USA! USA!"

The music starts, a martial drumming. They build two human pyramids on the platform. As a voice on the tape yells "De-fense! De-fense!," the two women atop the pyramids dive into the water, followed closely by the rest of the team.

The drums keep beating. It's marching band music, drum major music, cheerleader music. The show is a salute to halftime.

A moment later, eight pairs of legs pop to the surface. Needless to say, they start kicking.

When the night ends, the Americans are in third place on the judges' official scorecards, close behind Russia and Japan.

On Friday, they'll try to catch up by bringing out their showstopper -- swimming to Paul Dukas's "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," the music made famous in the movie "Fantasia." In her description of the program, coach Chris Carver promises "a visual representation of this great musical work," complete with a sorcerer and "four gargoyle-like birds" and several "naughty apprentices" and "a malevolent spidery figure."

There will also, no doubt, be legs.

And they will be kicking.

All at the same time.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company