The Washington Post

Synchronized swimming: The Olympics’ most glamorous sport

Synchronized swimming is sort of the “Toddlers and Tiaras” of the sporting world — sparkly, glamorous, mocked, and misunderstood.

View Photo Gallery: After two rounds — a technical preliminary and a free routine — the Russians hold a commanding lead going into the duet final. The Americans are in 10th place.

It’s harder than it looks, of course, because making it look easy is what makes a synchronized swimmer the best in the world. In a four-minute routine, swimmers are underwater for approximately three, so their lung capacity is amazing. And according to Popular Science, the team practices more than any other: Eight to 10 hours a day, six days a week.

It’s also one of the few Summer Olympic events where appearance matters to your score. Though the competitors don’t directly get points for their outlandish costume and makeup, those factors influence their “artistic impression,” which makes up 20 percent of the score. That’s why you see the participants in water ballet, as the sport was formerly called, dolled up like Vegas showgirls meet Bolshoi company members. Beyond the Opening Ceremonies, it’s one of the only times in the Olympics where fashion truly matters.

This year’s duet competitors dance underwater to a theme informed by their music choice and costume — which can be seen in the gallery above. For Russia, it’s creepy, broken dolls. Mexico’s howling wolf swimsuits echo the meme-worthy “Three Wolf Moon” shirt popular a few years ago. Switzerland’s costumes feature money — and dollars, instead of Euros. Maybe for all of those Swiss bank accounts? The U.S. went with a rather safe choice: Olympic torches. Brazil’s costumes emulate the human skeletal system.

All of these super-sparkly, campy costumes are offset by even campier makeup — somewhere between a drag queen and a clown. But the makeup serves a specific purpose: It helps the swimmers convey the emotions of their dances to judges sitting on the other side of the pool.

“So much of the sport is based on your performance and dependent on how you look and present yourself,” Mariya Koroleva, of the American synchro team, told NBC. “If we didn’t wear makeup then the judges wouldn’t be able to see our faces. The makeup really does add to the performance and add to the sport as a whole.”

Koroleva said the team paid a professional makeup artist to put together several looks, which they apply to their own faces before each competition. They apply ChapStick to their eyes before caking on waterproof shadow, sometimes using lipstick as blush to accentuate their cheekbones. Up close, it looks garish — but from far away, where the judges and cameras sit, it can look quite lovely. As for their hair, the swimmers slick it back with gelatin to keep strays in place, but their eyebrows are drawn on — after so much time in the pool, the chlorine burns them off, says synchronized swimmer Leah Pinette.

Women’s gymnastics may get all the attention each summer games, but synchro has attracted the eye of top photographers and fashion editors: British Vogue did a shoot with their country’s synchro team in the pool for the June issue. It’s another reason that fashion-forward Olympics -watchers should give this sport a closer look.

Read more about the Olympics on our live blog.

Maura Judkis covers culture, food, and the arts.


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