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6 Things You Didn’t Know About Synchronized Swimming That Will Shock You

By Lisa Costantini | March 01, 2016, 6:35 p.m. (ET)


Anita Alvarez and Mariya Koroleva compete in the women's duet technical preliminary at the 16th FINA World Championships at the Kazan Arena on July 26, 2015 in Kazan, Russia.

Call it synchronized swimming, or even water ballet — a name it’s had since its earliest days — but just don’t call it easy. Synchronized swimmer Mariya Koroleva, who competed at the London 2012 Olympic Games in the duet in this underwater sport — think figure skating and gymnastics done while treading water and holding your breath for periods of time — is currently in Rio for the Olympic qualifiers where she and Anita Alvarez will hope to punch their tickets for this summer’s Olympics. The 25-year-old takes us below the surface to share six things you probably didn’t know about synchronized swimming that might shock you.

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1. They Actually Have No Idea How Long They Can Hold Their Breath For

The first question anyone wants to know is how long can you hold your breath, Koroleva said. Her personal answer, however, is less predictable.

“It’s complicated because we don’t practice holding our breath sitting down stationary,” Koroleva said. Because synchronized swimmers’ routines consist of them popping in and out of the water every couple of seconds, she compared what they do to “sprinting and holding your breath at the same time.”

“Throughout a three-and-a-half minute program you’re breathing for 10 seconds, then not breathing for 20 seconds. So the amount of movements you’re doing and the faster you’re turning, the harder it’s going to be for your body to go without oxygen,” she said.

And while Koroleva admitted that it is a very important part of their sport, it is also very scary. “When you swim a whole routine, there are points when you really need air. Your body almost starts doing these little convulsions but you can’t come up. You have to stay under — so it’s definitely a mental challenge as well as physical.”

2. They’re Not Crying Because They Lost

Even though there might not be crying in baseball, there is crying in synchronized swimming — but not for the reason you might think. According to Koroleva, you could see tears in her sport because the chlorine and mix of chemicals in the pool are so strong it actually burns their eyes — but not if you wear contacts. Which is why, she said, “I have some teammates who get a very small contact prescription even though they don’t need it. It protects your eyes. Because you don’t want to be walking out for your routine and you can barely open your eyes because they’re already hurting from practice.”

That’s not to say the contacts are fail proof. “I’ve had plenty of competitions where I’ve lost both contacts right as we dove in,” she said. “My vision is so bad that everything looks totally different without my contacts, which is really stressful.” Not to mention the cost of constantly replacing them. Thankfully she revealed the United States Olympic Committee provides them with a year’s supply.

3. The Item So Essential They Usually Swim With Three Of Them

Swimmers are notorious for wearing small suits. But apparently they are roomy enough for synchronized swimmers to use them as a hiding place. If you know anything about synchronized swimming, you probably know about those little rubber nose clips used to keep water from going up their noses. But you probably don’t know what the athletes do if they fall off during a competition.

“I always swim with a spare,” Koroleva said. An added precaution — like the two nose clips she wears in case one loosens allowing water to leak in — because “it’s pretty common to get your nose clip kicked off or knocked off. If it happens, you just have to see if there’s a moment when you can pull out your spare.”

The only alternative is to swim without a nose clip, but she doesn’t recommend it, as “getting water in your nose is really uncomfortable.” Though that’s not a problem she said her duet partner from the 2012 Games, Mary Killman, had. “She actually doesn’t wear a nose clip because she can cover her nostrils with her upper lip. I know there are a few synchronized swimmers in the world that can do that, but I can’t. My lip doesn’t reach that high!”

4. No Men Allowed… Until Now

Despite being involved in the sport since its inception, men have never been allowed to compete at the highest level. However this past summer was the first time the international swimming federation FINA allowed men to compete at the world championships.

Held in Kazan, Russia, 2008 Olympian Christina Jones and Bill May — a synchronized swimmer who won 14 U.S. championships and several international titles during his career before retiring in 2005— returned to the sport and competed on behalf of Team USA in the first-ever mixed duet technical event. The pair brought home gold, while May and 2000 Olympian Kristina Lum Underwood won silver in the mixed duet free routine.

Koroleva called it “a breakthrough for our sport. And now that more countries are coming out with mixed duets, it’s a really interesting evolution of our sport.”

5. Concussions Play A Big Role In This Sport

When you hear the word eggbeater you probably think of a kitchen tool, but Koroleva said it is actually one of the most important skills in synchronized swimming. “Eggbeater is the technique we use to stay upright, the same technique they use in water polo,” she said. “It’s moving both of your legs in circles.”

The reason she said it plays such a big part in the sport is because “that powerful eggbeater kick is how you ensure the lift gets enough power and the flyer can get enough height to do all the acrobatic moves.” But what nobody takes into account is with that powerful kick comes risk.

“Because we swim so close together it’s very common to get hit,” Koroleva said. “We get bruises and cuts on our legs from the eggbeaters, and getting hit in the head happens a lot when someone goes off a lift and then lands on top of another swimmer by accident.”

A concussion is what took her out of the pool for one month at the end of last year, and she said it wasn’t even from a really hard hit. “Concussions are becoming more prevalent in our sport because people are starting to speak up about it. And they’re dangerous because if you aren’t completely healed and you go back in the pool, there is that possibility that you’re going to get hit again.”

6. It’s Supposed To Look Easy

“When people watch synchronized swimming, it looks really easy,” Koroleva said. “But we’re not supposed to show that we’re tired, or that we need air or that our muscles are burning. It’s supposed to look effortless.”

As a result of this, she admitted, “I don’t think people realize how much time it takes to match every single position. In a team routine, it probably has a couple hundred — maybe even a thousand — movements. And you’re not just synchronizing one or two people; you’re synchronizing eight people. Right down to where your pinky finger is or how straight your knee is.”

If that was all the judging was based on, they might not have to work out the six days a week, eight to nine hours a day — between in the water and on land — that they do. “Synchronization is just one part. We still have to worry about technique, height, power, flexibility.” They perfect that by combining their pool workouts, which last between five to six hours, with cross-training on land. “We do Pilates, weights, strength conditioning, ballet and sometimes dance and gymnastics,” she said.

Since the majority of their workout is in the water, which is low impact, she revealed that they are able to train longer than most. “Every athletic trainer I’ve worked with has said that synchronized swimming trains more than any other sport. But it’s really challenging to work out physically for that long. I think that’s something that people definitely don’t realize — just how much work we have to put in for that one three-and-a-half minute performance.”

Related Athletes

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Mariya Koroleva

Artistic Swimming
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Mary Killman