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Reflected glory: Is synchronised swimming on the up?

Will the sport continue to be an object of ridicule here now that we're getting good at it?

Synchronised swimming might be one of the more outlandish Olympic disciplines but, be in no doubt, this is mortal combat, with sequins and industrial quantities of eyeliner serving as the weapons.

In a beguiling procession of flashing legs, snarling mouths and batting eyelids, the final of the London 2012 women's duet event was held to rapturous applause from aficionados as aquatic sporting endeavour met, well, Strictly Come Dancing.

And, for a sport which has roots in America's music halls and has been dominated by Russia for more than a decade, Britain is getting pretty good at it. Jenna Randall and Olivia Federici, the first Britons to appear in an Olympic final for 20 years, produced a remarkable "free routine" of spins and leaps to take ninth place in the final with 177.2 points, ahead of France and the United States.

It represented a highly respectable march up the world rankings for a sport which Britain only started taking seriously five years ago.

The British pair, who finished 14th in Beijing are now firmly established in the global top 10 in this hybrid of swimming, disco and human dressage, where a hair out of place is a potential route to losing marks for artistic impression.

Jenna, 23, who along with her partner has been putting in 45 hours a week in the pool in an Army barracks in Aldershot, predicted further progress for the sport's British proponents. She said: "In Beijing we didn't make the final, so it was great to be a part of it at home this year. Hopefully for the next Olympics we'll be even higher up."

Whereas some of the other finalists went down the path that gave synchronised swimming its original moniker of "water ballet", the British pair were nothing if not edgy. The Spanish pair, eventual silver medallists, performed to the strains of a tango and the French whirled to Swan Lake with a few inflections of Harry Potter, while the girls from Ascot and Plymouth strutted their stuff to the Chemical Brothers.

The action for all competitors starts before they have entered the water. Each pair strides on to a platform in a dazzling display of diamante, nose clips and, in the case of the host nation's pair, the sort of baring of teeth that says, "Out of our way you lot, we perform to Mancunian big beat, not Tchaikovsky".

So far, so justified is the sport's reputation as faintly ludicrous. But there is no denying the athleticism, strength and aggression required to perform at this level. As the Spanish coach, Ana Tarres Campa, put it: "You can only win by fighting."

The sport has its own language to describe each element of a routine, from hand movements or "sculls" such as the "torpedo" or "split arm" to the all-important leg movement that produces stability beneath the water while shapes are being thrown above it, known as the Egg Beater.

And then there are the legs. Whereas the dancers of the Kirov or Covent Garden are least accorded the pleasure of drawing breath to wow the crowds, the synchronised swimmers perform some of their most demanding manoeuvres – thrusting their pins skywards in a multiplicity of shapes – while submerged, upside down and unable to see what each other is doing.

By the close of proceedings, even the Chinese, not known for defeatism, admitted there was only every going to be one winner. Wearing the garb of two ninja babushka dolls, the Russians Natalia Ischenko and Svetlana Romashina dismantled their opponents with a display of such precision it earned them 197.1 points out of 200.

Amid some griping from other teams that the judging in the sport remains unpredictably subjective, let it not be forgotten that behind the rictus grins and exaggerated make-up lies a terrifying – and slightly incomprehensible – pursuit of perfection. As Ischenko put it: "I hope the judges did not see the mistakes our coaches saw."