Great Britain’s ‘Cinderella Story’

After failing to qualify for the team competition for the past four Olympic Games, Great Britain has finally managed to qualify its first full Olympic team to represent the host country in the London 2012 Olympics. This article highlights Britain’s obstacles and triumphs throughout its synchronized swimmers’ journeys to the 2012 Olympic Games.  Only four years ago, Britain sent two synchronized swimmers to compete in the Olympics, and their duet placed 14th. The British synchronized swimming association implemented several measures that brought its swimmers from being outliers in the competition to major competitors in the upcoming Games.

From Zero to Hero

The Sport Digest blog recently posted an article about the financial difficulties of Olympic athletes, especially for those whose sports are too unpopular or obscure to attract mainstream popularity. The article referenced synchronized swimmers, who, despite their full-time practice schedules, have made fundraising their second jobs. Because of its small fan base and absence in the Olympic Games, Britain’s synchronized swim team has had many financial difficulties over the past couple decades. Financial difficulties coupled with unfamiliarity with the sport have contributed to Great Britain’s lack of appearances at the Olympics. In 2007, following the announcement of the 2012 London Games, the home country hired Biz Price, a national performance director, to form and train a national team. Since its creation, Great Britain has soared from ambiguousness to one of the top teams internationally. The team’s rigorous 42 hour per week training schedule has helped their rankings rise from 15th in 2009 to 9th in 2011 at the World Championships. In July, Britain will be sending a full team of 9 girls, 8 swimmers and 1 alternate, to the London 2012 Games.

Here is a video* from 2009. It is clear how much better the soloist, Jenna Randall, and her duet partner, Olivia Federici, are than the rest of the team. These two women were the only British synchronized swimmers to compete in the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. Unfortunately, the team did not make it to the finals of the World Championships in 2009.

 

London 2012 Expectations

Despite its immense success and improvement in the past few years, Britain’s expectations are not high for the London Games. It is unlikely that the country will earn any medals for synchronized swimming, given the past performances and reputations of countries such as Russia, China, Canada, and the United States. Great Britain will, however, have a “home court” advantage, and it will undoubtedly be the most supported country at the Olympics. Because Great Britain wants to display its talents as greatly as possible as the host country, I am betting that Great Britain will place around 6th or 7th in the team competition and around 10th in the duet competition. Many other countries already have such great presences in the sport and such well-established teams that Great Britain’s appearance at the Olympic Games will unlikely have a “Cinderella story” ending. Despite this apparent pessimism, Britain will still be a great team to watch throughout the London Games.

This is a video** from the 2011 World Championship in Shanghai. The improvement is noticeable from the previous video, and the team made it to the finals, placing 9th. The swimmers’ movements are much quicker and more intricate than those in the 2009 performance. In addition, duet partners Randall and Federici do not stand out against their team members nearly as much as in the previous video.

Countdown to London 2012: 112 days!

*Great Britain Synchro Swimming Combo Prelim – World Swim Champs Rome 2009, davidfsmithuk, 7/28/09, 4/6/12

**Great Britain Final Team Free, Synchronized Swimming, Shanghai World Championships 2011, RecintoMoxo, 6/23/11, 4/6/12

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The Journey of an Olympic Synchronized Swimmer

Every Olympian undergoes many years of intense training in order to compete on an international stage. Synchronized swimming, though often overlooked as a frivolous sport, requires the same amount of dedication from its athletes, many of whom dream of competing in the Olympics.

The Road to the Olympics

For many synchronized swimmers, their journeys begin at a young age, usually in elementary school, when they join a local synchronized swim team. As they mature and their competition begins to include swimmers across their region, state, country, and eventually world, practices become more serious and training becomes more intense. Some swimmers, while in middle or high school, are invited to join elite synchronized swim teams located in California who practice over 35 hours a week and forgo traditional schooling for private tutors. This intensive training is costly and often leaves little to no time for swimmers to participate in any activities outside of synchronized swimming. This is often what it takes, however, for an athlete to become an Olympian.  Five of ten of the swimmers on the 2012 Olympic team swam for the Santa Clara Aquamaids, a team that is known for its intense training facilities and the many Olympic swimmers that it has produced over the years. This is a video* of Santa Clara’s team from 2008. The swimmers are incredibly precise in their movements, and it is clear that they have the potential to become Olympians.

Olympic Training

Training for the Olympics is intense for all athletes. One of the main objectives of synchronized swimming is make the performances seem effortless. Although swimmers may stay underwater for up to a minute during a routine, they cannot emerge to the surface gasping for air. This article examines a typical day in the life of a synchronized swimmer, and it accurately illustrates the intensity of synchronized swimming. In this video**, a reporter for Time magazine spends one day training with the Olympic synchronized swim team and demonstrates how hard the women work on a daily basis in order to compete in the sport that they love.

Life after Synchronized Swimming

After over a decade of dedication and hard work for a sport that many people misunderstand, what do retired synchronized swimmers do with themselves? There is no “professional” synchronized swimming. Olympic synchronized swimmers do not earn high salaries, and they have to raise half of the funds for their Olympic training and competition themselves. For some swimmers, the next step is attending college. Some synchronized swimmers put off going to college in order to compete in the Olympics. There are a few Division I universities, including Stanford and Ohio State, that categorize synchronized swimming as a Varsity sport and offer prospective team members athletic scholarships. Besides receiving a highly competitive athletic scholarship, there is not a high demand for synchronized swimmers. Some take on coaching jobs, but most pursue other interests. Competing at the Olympics is the high point of all synchronized swimmers’ careers. It is a testament to swimmers’ love and passion for their sport when the absolute best benefit of competing is to perform on an international stage, without any promise of monetary reward or fame. It is this dedication that makes synchronized swimmers so unique and admirable.

Countdown to London 2012: 122 days!

*Santa Clara A Tech Team 2008, slovak57, 5/28/2008, 3/26/2012

**A Synchronized Swim Lesson with Sean Gregory, TimeMagazine, 3/23/2012, 3/26/2012

Always the Silver, Never the Gold

Last month, Spanish synchronized swimming legend Gemma Mengual officially announced her retirement from the sport. After competing in 3 Olympic games and several world championships, Mengual has decided to retire in order to focus on motherhood and a potential coaching career. As captain of her team, she successfully led Spain to two silver medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics in the duet and team competitions. Even though she led her team to only one gold medal at the 2009 World Championships in Shanghai, she is still proud of her accomplishments. Mengual states, “There are still some things I have not achieved. I have never won an Olympic gold, but that’s life.”

As I mentioned one of my earliest posts, Russia has dominated Olympic synchronized swimming for decades. Russia swims and trains with an intensity and determination that other countries appear to lack. As Mengual states in this interview, Russian synchronized swimmers have little time in their schedules for anything besides synchronized swimming. “As we see it, [the Russian team] do[es] it to make a living whereas we do it more for amusement with the goal of getting to the Olympics but at the same time doing other things. It’s not so obsessive. [The Russian swimmers] have something like a four-year training camp and have no life outside the sport.” If Mengual was from Russia rather than Spain, there is no doubt that she would not have been able to compete internationally as well as raise a child and open her own sushi restaurant. Mengual is proud of her athletic achievements, but is still able to recognize the reason behind Russia’s domination. She states, “In the team events we can come up with choreography that is very original and beautiful and eye-catching but technically, at the level of execution, the Russians are light years ahead.” Although artistic impression is critical in scoring, routines with better technical elements will always win.

Despite Spain’s determination to emulate Russia’s success, the team’s primary focus is on beating China, whose team won the silver medal at the 2011 world championships in Shanghai last July, leaving Spain with the bronze. In order for the Spanish to achieve its goal of silver in London, the team will have to focus on its strengths: creativity and choreography. Spain’s team routines are some of the most interesting to watch because of their devotion to their artistic themes. In this video* from 2007, which features Gemma Mengual, the artistry and creativity behind the Spanish team shines, especially within the first minute-and-a-half of the video.

This is the same routine that Spain swam about a year later in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where the team placed second. It is clear why the team scored so high; the choreography was specific and creative, and the swimmers performed the technical elements of the routine well. The dedication to the jungle and cat theme throughout the routine draws the audience and judges in, and it even distracts from the absence of lifts and throws near the end of the routine, which are typically expected at this level of competition.

In honor of Gemma Mengual’s dedication to the unique sport of synchronized swimming, here is a video** of her solo performance at the 2009 world championships in Rome, where she placed second, once again behind Russia. Her determination and dedication to synchronized swimming shine through every one of her performances, and the sport will miss her.

Countdown to London 2012: 126 days!

*Spain group WCH Melburn 2007 Synchronized Swimming, sportgymnastic, 7/24/07, 3/21/12.

**Gemma Mengual ROMA 2009 SOLO LIBRE FINAL, swimsynchro92, 7/23/09, 3/21/12.

If one synchronized swimmer drowns, do the rest have to drown too?

This is an unbelievably common question that non-swimmers ask me when they discover that I used to be a synchronized swimmer. The honest and truthful answer is no, obviously if the safety of a swimmer was in jeopardy, the attending lifeguard would jump in and take the swimmer to safety. Depending on the referee at the competition, the entire team may or may not be able to re-swim the routine. This common riddle does, however, bring up other questions about synchronized swimming.

If the swimmers are not synchronized, then why is the word “synchronized” in the sport’s title?

As one can infer from the sport’s title, synchronization is a key component of synchronized swimming; however, it is not the most important element of the sport. As I mentioned in a previous post, the original term for synchronized swimming was “water ballet” and later “rhythmic swimming”. The most likely reason for the eventual change to “synchronized swimming” is the enormous change in the definition of the sport itself. Synchronized swimming was not a competitive sport in its early forms. The routines consisted mostly of floats, like the one shown in this picture from the 1970s, and variations of basic swim strokes, as the first synchronized swimmers were competitive lap swimmers.

Common synchronized swimming float from the 1970s

Floats are not nearly as common in synchronized swimming today, and as shown in the many videos posted throughout this blog, synchronized swimming moves today are much more advanced, quick-paced, and intricate. As this transformation occurred, the sport’s name changed in order to incorporate the more important aspects of the sport. The change from water ballet to rhythmic swimming demonstrated that the sport was much more than simply “dancing in the water”, as so many people describe synchronized swimming as today. Rhythmic swimming mimicked rhythmic gymnastics, and this marked the recognition of the sport as a combination of dance, gymnastics, and swimming. Finally the title “synchronized swimming” was established, and it was under this name that the sport made its first appearance in the 1984 Summer Olympic Games.

If being synchronized is not the most important element of synchronized swimming, then what is?

In the Olympics, there are two routine events, the duet and the team. Each duet and team must perform two routines, a technical and a free, in order to receive their total team score. The technical routine is much shorter than the free routine and its choreography is much more restricted. During the technical routines, the swimmers must perform certain required elements – like during the “figures” competition, which I wrote about in my last post. Failure to complete any of these elements in the 2:50 time frame for technical routines will result in a penalty. These two routines, the technical and the free, are judged slightly differently. 70% of a technical routine score is based on how well the required elements are performed, and the remaining 30% is judged according to choreography and other non-required aspects of the routine.

Here is an example of a technical duet*:

The scoring for the free routines is much more convoluted, as the score is divided into technical merit and artistic impression scores. The technical merit score for the free routine is broken down into three categories:

  1. Execution, worth 40%
  2. Synchronization, worth 30%
  3. Difficulty, worth 30%

The artistic impression score for the free routine is also broken down into three categories:

  1. Choreography, worth 50%
  2. Synchronization, worth 25%
  3. Difficulty, worth 25%

Here is an example of the same two swimmers, swimming their free routine**:

Although synchronization is included in all scoring aspects of the sport, it is not the most important part of the sport. Because of how far synchronized swimming has come in the last century, its purpose and elements of performance have developed along with the sport.

How can a swimmer swim a solo routine if she has no one to synchronize with?

Even though there is no other person to be synchronized with, a swimmer can perform and compete with a solo routine. The solo routine was an Olympic event until 1992, when it was removed to allow room for the team event. Because synchronized swimming consists of so many technical and artistic elements, the solo competition is popular. A soloist’s routine, however, is not judged the same as a duet or team routine. The breakdown for a solo free routine is as follows, for both the technical merit and artistic impression scores:

  1. Execution, worth 50%
  2. Synchronization, worth 20%
  3. Difficulty, worth 30%

The synchronization that this scoring breakdown refers to is synchronization with the music and synchronization with the self. All synchronized swimming routines are intricately choreographed, and it is obvious to judges when the swimmer makes a mistake and becomes unsynchronized with the music.

Countdown to London 2012: 134 days!

Spain Final Duet Technical, Synchronized Swimming, Shanghai World Championships 2011, RecintoMoxo, 7/18/11, 3/15/12

** Spain Final Duet Free, Synchronized Swimming, Shanghai World Championships 2011, RecintoMoxo, 7/22/11, 3/15/12

Picture Credit: Meredith Alumnae, fellow WordPress blogger http://beyondthebackgate.wordpress.com/tag/aqua-angels/

Back to Basics

For the past few weeks, I have ranted and raved about various countries’ top synchronized swimmers and the countries’ cultural aspects as they pertain to synchronized swimming. This week, I have decided to break down synchronized swimming for those who are unfamiliar with the sport.

The Competition:

The final composite score at synchronized swimming competitions consists of the routine score and the figure score. The routine is the part of the competition that spectators are most familiar with, and I have posted many examples of routines throughout this blog. Swimmers perform movements to music, as a solo (one swimmer), duet (two swimmers), trio (three swimmers), team (four to eight swimmers), or combination (ten swimmers), and the routines are similar to dance or figure skating performances. The figure competition is much more serious, and all swimmers are required to wear black bathing suits and white swim caps. During this part of the competition, swimmers perform “figures”, which are series of positions performed individually without music, in front of a panel of judges who score the swimmers on a scale of 1 to 10. The figure competition typically takes place before the routine portion of the competition, and it is 50 percent of every swimmer’s score. During the figure competition, skills such as precision and muscle control are key, whereas endurance and artistic impression are much more important during the routine portion of the competition.

The swimmer in this video* does an excellent job explaining what she is doing while performing a “Ballet Leg.” This is one of the most basic figures that swimmers perform, and it is an essential element of synchronized swimming.

This video** shows a swimmer performing an “Ibis Continuous Spin”. This figure uses the ballet leg shown in the previous video, and this video demonstrates where a few years of hard work can lead a new swimmer. Pay close attention to the swimmer’s hands and the propelling motions she makes with them. She is aware of the shifts in her body weight, and her hands move accordingly.

Basic Moves:

When watching synchronized swimming, there are a few basic moves that spectators should recognize:

  1. Eggbeater – This refers to how synchronized swimmers tread water. It is named for how a swimmer kicks her legs – in an eggbeater pattern. It is the most efficient and effective way to tread water, and it allows swimmers to perform motions with their arms out of the water while swimming.
  2. Sculling – In order to have parts of their bodies above water, swimmers propel themselves using their hands, which is referred to as sculling. Depending on what move the swimmer is performing, she uses different types of sculls. Almost always, swimmers’ palms face towards the bottom of the pool, in order to propel their bodies as far out of the water as possible.
  3. Deckwork – Before a routine begins, swimmers perform various moves on the pool deck, called deckwork. Anything swimmers do on the deck is calculated into their final routine score, which is why so many teams perform such intricate and specific movements on deck before entering the pool.

The History of Synchronized Swimming:

Although it is one of only two Olympic sports to allow only female competitors, synchronized swimming originated in Europe in the late 1800s as an all-male sport. Back then, it was known as water ballet, and as the sport gained popularity, its name officially changed from “water ballet” to “rhythmic swimming” to “synchronized swimming.” Esther Williams emerged as synchronized swimming star in the 1940s by performing in “aquamusicals”. As a part of these shows, she performed in several water scenes in movies that featured her synchronized swimming. Despite Ester William’s success, synchronized swimming did not become an official Olympic sport until 1984, though it had been demonstrated at Olympic games since 1952. The sport today has become much more physically rigorous, and it is almost unrecognizable from its 19th century roots.

Although this video*** is not a clip from the Olympics, this routine is simply amazing. It is high-energy and fun to watch. The swimmers perform moves that are incredibly creative and difficult. Unfortunately, this video only shows a portion of the routine, but it is remarkable nonetheless.

Countdown to London 2012: 152 days

*Synchronized Swimming Lessons: Ballet Leg for Synchronized Swimming Figures, expertvillage, 2/18/08, 2/26/12

**112f ibis continuos spin 720 II, synchrowords, 9/29/09, 2/26/12

***synchro CANADA 2009 Synchro Highlight Routine, durangopsi, 11/27/09. 2/26/12

Synchronized Swimming Goes ‘Down Under’

After several disappointing finishes at previous Olympic games, including 8th in 2000 and 7th in 2008, the Australian synchronized swimming team is working harder than ever to prepare for this year’s Olympics. The team took additional steps to prepare for the games in hopes of achieving better results in London this summer, and Australia even delayed the announcement of its national team until last week. The Australian national team that is poised to compete in this summer’s Olympics is younger than ever, consisting of athletes ages 16 to 27. The Australian team has even employed a Russian coach, Anna Nepotacheva, in hopes of furthering its success. This short video provides a brief overview of this year’s Olympic team.

It appears to be a mystery as to why the Australian synchronized swim team has not performed better in previous Olympics. The beach is a critical part of Australian culture, and many Australians learn to swim when they are small children. Russia, on the other hand, while it has many lakes and an expanse of coastline, is too cold for swimming and other water sports to be overwhelmingly popular. Despite this apparent disadvantage, Russia consistently dominates the Olympic games and other world championships. How is this possible? The culture of these countries is much more relevant when answering this question than each country’s geography and climate. The Australian culture is much more laid back than Russian culture. Russian culture emphasizes precision, obedience, and hard work. In addition, Russia’s population is over 6 times as large as Australia’s, providing Russia with many more athletes to choose from. Athletically, Russia performs better overall than Australia in many world championships, including the Olympics.

It became apparent to me how disappointingly unpopular Australia’s synchronized swimming team is when I tried to find a video to post for this week. Although there were few to choose from, this video* is definitely worth watching, and Australian culture certainly shines through in the routine in this video. This routine is upbeat and fun, and even though it is not as technically impressive or challenging as other countries’ such as Russia or Spain, it demonstrates some of the lighter aspects of Australian culture. In addition, the commentary on this video is excellent, especially for viewers unfamiliar with synchronized swimming.

Countdown to London 2012: 158 days!


*Synchronized Swimming-Australia Team, 2007 Fina World Championships, Studio 209, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XNrPF6dxUDY, 2/19/12

China Reaches for Silver

After hosting the 2008 Summer Olympics, China is hoping to maintain its high reputation as an athletic and economic superpower. During the last Olympic Games, the Chinese synchronized swimming team took home its first medal in the history of the sport, the bronze. According to this article, China’s synchronized swim team is hoping to do even better at the London 2012 Olympic Games, though as China’s coach Masayo Imura states in this article, “Russia rules synchronized swimming. They are a class above us. We haven’t even reached a level where we can say we are competing with the Russians for the top position.” As I stated in my previous blog post, Russia has won the gold medal in both the duet and team categories for the past three Olympic Games, and the Russian team is the expected gold-medal winner for the upcoming Olympics.

China’s synchronized swimming team has drastically improved over the past 16 years. After receiving 7th place in both 1996 and 2000 and 6th place in 2004, it was both a shock and delight to the Chinese team to receive 3rd place at Beijing in 2008. What is it about China that makes this immense improvement possible? How is China different from any other country? If one examines China’s economy, it has taken steps in the past 40 years to become an economic superpower that can contest with the economy of the United States. Because of the intense work ethic that Chinese workers and athletes alike demonstrate, China has become an athletic and economic force to internationally contend with. These two videos demonstrate how far China has come in synchronized swimming since 1996.

This is a video from the 1996 Olympic games*:

This is a video from the 2011 World Championships**:

By just examining the first minute of each video, it is apparent how much better China has become over the past 16 years. Compare the first throw from the 1996 video to that of the 2011 video. In the 1996 video, the flier jumps forward at an impressive height, but she does not flip or spin at all; whereas in 2011 video, the flier performs two backflips and reaches a height of at least 20 feet above the water. The difficulty of the second throw is high, whereas young swimmers could perform the first throw. The difference between these two routines is a testament to the Chinese work ethic as well as to the personality of China as a whole. It is this element of shock and awe that builds excitement for the London 2012 Olympics. China’s ability to improve so much over the years is inspiring to young and potential Olympic athletes as well as threatening to the other teams with whom China will compete in hopes of earning a silver medal in London.

Countdown to London 2012: 165 days

*Synchro China team free JO Olimpic games Atlanta 1996, durangopsi, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WeJEW1vqXyU, 02/12/12

**China Final Team Free, Synchronized Swimming, Shanghai World Championships 2011, RecintoMoxo, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AtIwkTdYf4w&feature=results_video&playnext=1&list=PLB0E68C86F638E975, 02/12/12