THE world of synchronised swimming is a tough one. 'Synchro', as devotees call it, is physically demanding. A sequence of figures is 'the equivalent of running a 400-metre race without breathing,' according to Muriel Coombs, a coach with the Bristol Central Swimming Club. But synchro's image is so fluffy and unserious that it is threatened with being dropped from the Olympics as a recognised sporting event. And on top of that, the Amateur Swimming Association has banned sequins from swimsuits at all UK competitions this year.

Bristol Central members do not approve. 'It takes the fun out of it, banning sequins,' said Kate Morris, 16, pausing after executing a neat figure at the Sunday lunchtime training session. She trains five times a week, squeezing her homework into school dinner hours and odd moments. Happily for Kate, in the club's own Christmas show, sequins on the costumes are unrestricted.

Bristol Central chief coach Trish Maggs is equally unimpressed with the sequin ban. 'The ASA thinks sequins make synchro look too theatrical, but I think what attracts girls to the sport is the dressing-up and presenting themselves. We don't like being dictated to, though it saves a lot of sewing.'

The senior squad's choice for its winning jungle-theme routine, performed to Mud's 'Tiger Feet', was a sequinless but slinky leopard-print one-piece with elegant black lace shoulders and a subtle smattering of discreet jewels across the stomach.

Bristol Central is one of 283 synchronised swimming clubs in the UK; around 2,000 girls compete regularly at national levels. It is one of the most successful clubs, with about 50 members who train at the rather dingy pool under Bristol University Students Union.

New recruits begin at the age of nine or10 - some fade away in their teens when exams and boyfriends start to claim their attention. Those who stick with it have to be sufficiently dedicated to train for two hours in the pool on Saturday and three on Sunday, plus evening sessions every week night but Friday, and gym sessions for flexibility in the run-up to a top-level competition.

'It's easy and nice to begin with, but later on you have to become an athlete, gymnast and ballerina all in one,' says Trish Maggs.

The club is a family affair. Trish, who swamfor England before turning to coaching, is Muriel's daughter, and her sister also coaches. Beginners work their way through grades one to five, and competitions are divided into three sections - figures, team display, and solo routines. The ASA Handbook of Synchronised Swimming lists more than 200 figures, from the simple ballet leg (one leg sticking straight up) through the dolphin (a graceful underwater circle) to the more complicated barracuda-back-pike- somersault-combined-spin.

Noseclips are vital to avoid indelicate spluttering (if not actual drowning) while performing such complicated movements underwater, holding one's breath for a minute at a time. Imperfect angles lose competition marks, so Muriel was critical as she ran the middle-graders through their paces. 'That leg's off vertical, not a bad twist, but a bit off, and she's drifting a bit.'

The seven members of the senior squad were running through a complicated routine, hair neatly slicked back with gelatine, noseclips on. Trish beat time for them. 'Gemma, you're backing into Vicky] Natalie, your knee] Smile]' (Three of them did.)

Squad members Lynne Figes and Karen Thompson, both 21, are two of Bristol Central's hopes for the next British Olympic squad. They are both 10-year synchro veterans.

Karen works inthe leisure services department of Bristol city council. 'I get up at 6.15, I'm in the pool by seven, stay in till eight, then on to work. I work till half past four, go home to eat, then I'm back in the pool by 6.30,' she said cheerfully. 'It's worth it. The Olympics has been a dream for so long.' Such a rigorous schedule is absolutely necessary. 'If you don't train you start to lose the feel of the water after as little as two weeks.'

The regime leaves little time for otheractivities. Lynne chose to take her degree in sociology at Bristol University so she wouldn't have to go away to study and leave the club.

'This is what I want and I'm happy to have made that choice. I had a boyfriend, but in September he went away to college so we're not going out any more. If your boyfriend is a swimmer he understands, but if not it's difficult; you have to sacrifice a lot and he has to understand how much time you have to give up to sport.'

Both women take synchro very seriously. So why does it have such a glossy, non-sporting image?

'It's so nice to watch, people don't realise the effort we're making,' according to Karen. 'It's frustrating, because we put such a lot into it,' added Lynne.

Trish Maggs has a different point of view. 'It's a woman's sport, that's why. It's the same in every field - athletics, tennis, marathons - the emphasis is on men.' Synchro funding is difficult to come by. All the Bristol coaches work voluntarily. 'The council has just sent the swimming club to Lanzarote for two weeks,' muttered one cross voice. 'It's not fair.'

At the end of the training session, Lynne and Karen ran through their solos. Much of the practice has to be done in the front room at home because pool time is limited. Solo synch seems like a contradiction, but in fact the solo sections are by far the best to watch. While the figures can be monotonous and the team efforts kitsch, the solos combine grace, strength and elegance.

'You bring your own character,' says Lynne. 'It's you.'

Sync or Swim, Channel 4 Short Stories, Wednesday August 17, 8.30pm.

(Photograph omitted)