Synchronised swimming is one of those activities we Brits refuse to take seriously. "More like synchronised drowning," an Olympic pundit once scoffed at something which seems a cross between Swan Lake, Baywatch and the Cirque du Soleil... all waterproof mascara, lip gloss, upside-down splits and perma-smiles.
They said similar things about ice dancing until Torvill and Dean convinced us it wasn't just a load of old bolero with their 1984 Olympic gold medal, subsequently attracting the biggest TV audience (22 million) outside of a major football final at the Lillehammer Games eight years later.
We all remember T & D. But who remembers Esther Williams? She was the Million Dollar Mermaid. A Hollywood legend who created quite a splash in classics such as That's Entertainment and Neptune's Daughter, performing in water while her co-star Fred Astaire did so on the parquet. The one-time aquatic goddess of the screen, now 86, is one of Hollywood's last remaining Grand Dames, living in Beverley Hills.
Ever heard of Esther Williams, we asked Britain's leading synchro swimmer, 18-year-old Jenna Randall? "I think my gran may have mentioned her," she replied. Like the estimable Esther, Randall has long legs and a ready smile, prerequisites for a sport which is just beginning to resurface here after sinking slowly following Britain's best-ever fourth place, in the duet, when it was introduced into the Los Angeles Olympics 23 years ago.
Of course, you also require a hell of a lot more, as Britain's newly recruited performance director Biz Price, from Canada, one of the world's top coaches, is quick to point out. "Those who take part in synchronised swimming at the highest level are among the best conditioned athletes in the world. OK, it is one of those quirky sports, but the basic rules of sport still apply in terms of how it is judged. It is complex, because you only see part of it; a lot goes on underwater. But there was never any argument about synchro getting into the Olympics. It fits in perfectly with their definition of sport.
"I remember how the media treated the British girls in the 1986 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh. I was embarrassed and upset for them."
If you subscribe to the belief that anything done to music isn't sport it rules out not only synchro and skating but rhythmic and artistic gymnastics, which are now fundamental to the Olympic programme.
Price, 45, brings a wealth of experience after stints in Canada, Spain, China and New Zealand as a coaching consultant and choreographer. Getting her is quite a coup. "I wanted a change and was pleased to come here as my father was born in Britain. The enticement was really to start afresh with a country that can only go forward, and with 2012 in mind, I just wanted to be part of it, to reorganise and redevelop. British teams have always had good representation in the Commonwealth Games but there has obviously been a bit of a decline in the last decade. However, there is now a really big push on for 2012. The good news is that there are talented athletes out there."
There are around 500 synchro swimmers in Britain, and the nucleus of that talent comprises Randall, the current British solo champion and Commonwealth Games silver medallist, her duet partner, Olivia Allison, 16, and the 24-year-old Lauren Smith. All are from Britain's premier club, Rushmoor, in Farnborough, Hampshire, and are currently being schooled by Price at the Army's superb sports complex nearby in Aldershot, where squaddies going for their daily dip in the garrison pool may be taken aback at seeing the girls doing the backstroke balancing a half-filled tumbler of water on their foreheads.
It is all part of a rigorous training routine that catches the breath - quite literally, with noseclips used, as Price puts it, "so they don't drown when they invert".
She explains that synchro has been around since the early 1900s. "It was originally called Ornamental Swimming, for both men and women, based on life- saving skills, and it was certainly the MGM movies with Esther Williams which popularised it. Russia has been the world's leading nation for the last 10 years. What their athletes bring is acrobatics, gymnastics and speed, and because of that it has changed, and now Britain must change with it."
So what does she look for in a potential champion? "Someone who primarily is an incredible athlete in all areas, aerobically fit and talented, and ideally with strong, long legs. Someone who has no fear, expert spatial awareness and a knowledge of biomechanics. Most top-class athletes train up to eight hours a day. At the moment the British girls train five hours daily, but we are planning to double that. That sounds horrendous, but it is what is needed to succeed."
She says of Randall, from Camberley: "Jenna has all the natural aptitudes, long limbs, very artistic, with a background in ballet. Here is a kid who is a great natural athlete, one who is absolutely determined and dedicated. She is flexible and powerful and thinks critically. If you make a correction, she applies it immediately. What it comes down to is character. If you don't have that character to push yourself, be driven and work hard when you are absolutely fatigued, you are not going to make it."
In March, Randall and Allison will compete as a duo in the world championships in Melbourne, where Randall won the solo individual in the Common-wealth Games last year.
"All three girls have time to develop - in the last Olympics, for example, the top Russians were around 28 or 29. For Beijing we will enter only in the duet event because we will not be ready for the team [solo is not an Olympic event]. It would be great if they could get into the top 15, because we can build from there."
Like her team-mates, Randall was attracted to the sport as a youngster, joining Rushmoor as a six-year-old. "What I like about it is that you can express yourself in the water, using every part of your body and make it look glamorous." She likes slow, emotional music. "At the moment I'm swimming to "Summertime", but I have also swam to the theme tune of Gladiator.
"Synchro is just like a 400- metre run, you use all your muscles in trying to lift your body out of the water. Although I am looking forward to Beijing, I really feel that 2012 will be the best year Britain has ever seen for synchro swimming. That is our goal, and having a world-class coach like Biz here is fantastic. It's amazing, she has come in and shown us moves that we hadn't known before, like how to scull properly." She explains this is an arm action which helps keep the legs out of the water when the swimmer is upside down.
Thanks to the Lottery, she is able to train full-time. Although the sport is open to men there are few takers in Britain. "The trouble is they think it is a girlie thing."
According to the trio, synchro appeals because of its unpredictability. "There is a little more 'oomph' to it - not just swimming up and down, which is incredibly boring," says Smith. Allison, from St Albans, adds: "You have to have a feel for the music; without that you can't really get into it. You have to paint a picture, tell a story."
As dear old Esther would say, That's Entertainment. And sport, of course.
What the expert says: The beauty of that ballet background
"Having come to Britain after coaching national squads in Canada, China and Spain, I think that the team here is around six years behind the standard of the leading nations in the world. That said, the good news is that there is a lot of talent here. Jenna has a great natural ability, is very determined and will dedicate herself to her training, which is a must in this sport. Coming from a ballet background has been of great use to her, and we will work hard now on building physical fitness. I am very excited about the prospects of working with Jenna and other girls who are emerging at the top in Britain. We have extended the amount of time spent training from 15 hours a week to over 36, so I expect to see a steep rise in the performance levels very quickly. Five-and-a-half years is not a long time in this sport, but with a good training programme and a lot of hard work from the girls, I hope to see them achieve their ambitions of taking on the rest of the world at the highest level come London in 2012. "
Biz Price, the Canadian national team coach for 17 years, is now the GB performance director
Class of 2006: James Shane: Better than expected - plus an A* in PE exam
Last year was a good one for me - I exceeded my expectations both on and off the track, which resulted in setting personal best times in each of my three main events, as well as achieving 11 GCSE passes, including an A* for PE.
I started on a new two-year training programme, concentrating on the 400 metres and 800m, since the 1500m comes more naturally to me. The emphasis was on working on my strength while maintaining my endurance levels.
This paid off in the summer at the English Schools and AAA Championships, when my consistency during the races and, more importantly, my kick down the home straight meant I set personal best times in the 1500m and 800m, winning titles and setting new county records in the process.
I have increased my mileage in training ahead of the new season and I'm doing strength and conditioning work at Tessa Sanderson's 2012 Academy in Newham with an American coach, Paul Cater, who is also working with the Wasps rugby team.
This will, I hope, help with the goals this year that I have talked about with my coach, Martin Brown, to maintain my speed and endurance as we work towards that podium in 2012. The European Junior Champion-ships in Holland are the main event in 2007 that I hope to qualify for but, most importantly, improving while staying injury-free and continuing to enjoy my sport are key.
I also have a new project outside athletics - I am a black belt in judo, and last year I began coaching youngsters aged eight to 15 at a local club. This is a great way to switch off from training and from studying for the three A-Levels, in PE, maths and biology, I've started. But athletics and my dreams of being on that podium in London will always come first.
James Shane, who competes for Basildon AC, was our first 12 for 2012 contender last yearReuse content