Making it look easy


Sports editor

The sport of synchronized swimming looks more like a lavish Hollywood production than an Olympic event. Petite women dressed in sequinned bathing suits with a permanent smile painted on their makeup-filled face. The perfectly pointed toes seem more akin to high-priced actresses than athletes.

That’s not the case. Not even close, according to those in the know.

“It is a very hard and demanding sport,” Amy McClintock, the media director for Synchro Swimming USA, said. “It’s basically gymnastics, ballet, figure skating, along with swimming and even water polo all rolled into one.”

Synchronized swimming requires a unique combination of overall body strength and flexibility, grace and beauty, split-second timing, musical interpretation, endurance, dramatic flair and exceptional breath control, according to McClintock. Swimmers perform strenuous movements upside down and underwater while holding their breath — all while spending five minutes not touching the bottom of the pool.

“You need leg strength as well as upper body strength,” she said.

That strength and athleticism will be on display in Federal Way starting Tuesday at the United Airlines Open Championships at the Weyerhaeuser King County Aquatics Center. The elite caliber international competition will attract more than 350 swimmers. They will vie for titles in solo, duet, trio and team events in three divisions — 14-15 years old, 16-18 and open.

“Federal Way and the Pacific Northwest have a strong tradition in synchronized swimming,” said Nancy Campi, co-meet manager. “Having hosted national events in the past, we have a great group of volunteers who have knowledge of running events and will put forth great efforts to make this event run smoothly.”


• Although participants and people associated with synchronized swimming don’t want the sport to be thought of as “Hollywood,” that is actually where it got its mainstream start.

The sport gained huge popularity during the 1940s and ‘50s when Esther Williams performed in a string of MGM “Aqua Musicals” on the big screen. But the sport got its start in the early 1900s and was originally known as water ballet. The actual name of synchronized swimming started in Canada in the ‘20s and spread to the United States in the early 1930s, where a display at the 1934 Chicago World’s Fair drew rave reviews.

• The stuff in their hair is unflavored Knox gelatin and is used to keep the athlete’s hair out of her face. Knox is also used in Jell-O and cheesecake. It is applied as a warm, thick paste, hardens while air-drying and is washed out in very hot water following the competition. Before Knox, swimmers used a combination of vaseline, waterproof hair spray or good old fashioned dippity-doo. The primary ingredient of Knox is soft horse cartilage, which is widely praised by the medical community as beneficial to hair, nails, ligaments and cartilage when taken internally.

• The noseclip is the most important piece of equipment for synchro swimmers. Noseclips serve one purpose — to keep water out of the athlete’s nose. Most athletes also carry a spare noseclip inside their suits, just above the hip, in case the primary noseclip is dislodged during the swim.

• Yes, they can hear the music underwater. Actually, sound travels better through water than through air. The speaker is hung near the middle of the competition area, approximately 1-meter below the water surface.

• Only duet and team events are contested in the Olympic Games. Solo and duet were contested in 1984, 1988 and 1992.

In 1992, the International Olympic Committee, responding to requests from the synchro community, replaced solo and duet with the team event for 1996. Back by popular demand, the IOC reinstated duets to the Olympic program for the 2000 Olympic Games.

• All synchronized swimming competition suits are handmade at a cost of approximately $100-125 each. Each swimmer is outfitted with two suits for each routine.

• The inaugural U.S. National Synchronized Swimming Championships were held in 1946, just one year after the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) first recognized the sport. A few years later, the 1955 Pan American Games included synchronized swimming events and the World Aquatic Championships soon followed.

After almost 40 years of concerted effort, synchronized swimming was included in the Olympic Games in 1984, with the United States winning the first solo and duet gold medals.

• In the 1996 Olympics, the team event replaced solo and duet competition, which had been a part of the Olympic program since 1984. Team USA earned a perfect free routine score to win the gold medal in front of a home crowd in Atlanta. The overwhelming demand for tickets and broad television appeal of the 1996 team event prompted the IOC to reinstate the duet event for the 2000 Olympic Games and beyond.

• The United States was undefeated in world competitions from 1991-96, led by nine-time grand slam victor Becky Dyroen-Lancer. In fact, from the 1984 games through the 1996 Olympics, the U.S. Synchronized Swimming Olympic Team was the only American team in any sport to medal gold or silver in every Olympics since the sport’s inclusion.

Scoring Formats

Synchronized swimming events consist of one of three scoring formats: Figures, technical and free routines.

• Technical Routine — Involves required technical elements that must be performed in a series. Teams choose their own music and add additional choreography but cannot perform elements out of order.

• Free Routine — There are no restrictions on music, choreography or elements of the free routine.


Penalties may be assessed by the event referee should any or all of the competitors perform one or more of the following:

• Exceeding 10-second deckwork time limit (one point)

• Exceeding routine time limit (one point)

• Deliberate use of the bottom of the pool (two points)

• Routine is interrupted by a competitor during deckwork and a new start is allowed (two points)

• If one or more competitors stops swimming, the routine is disqualified. If cessation is caused by uncontrollable circumstance, the referee may allow the routine to be redone.

Sports editor Casey Olson: 925-5565,

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