Synchronised Swimming: Difficult art makes bigger splash

`Synchro' is no longer the laughing stock of sport, says Mike Rowbottom
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The Independent Online
The code of behaviour at Wigan's international pool was violated at the weekend. While those in the water refrained as requested from running, petting, bombing, shoving, pushing, ducking, spitting and smoking - at least as far as one could judge - the ban on acrobatics was flagrantly disregarded.

With more athletic endeavour than ever before, 101 competitors in what was the 22nd National Synchronised Swimming Championships went through their unlikely motions, watched by a small but knowledgeable audience.

It is 12 years since the sport bobbed into the public consciousness at the 1984 Olympics. Its peculiar combination of strenuous activity and a fixed grin quickly established it as a target for ridicule. Carolyn Wilson, one of the two British competitors in Los Angeles, remembers very clearly the reaction in media circles at the time.

"We got some quite negative publicity from people like Des Lynam," she recalled. "That is the risk run by all sports with an artistic element. People have an opinion about it.

"We are used to seeing sport in terms of men grovelling about on the rugby field, but sport shouldn't just be about sweating and grimacing. It can also be about people enjoying themselves."

Sweating and grimacing will never have a place in the world of synchro, but those who run the sport have been smart enough to realise sequins and smiles is also a losing combination in the long term.

In an effort to counteract the sport's glamorous excesses and absurdities, the emphasis has been shifted towards technical expertise, which now carries 60 per cent of marks in competition, leaving artistic impression as the lesser element.

The sport as a whole now reacts to sequins like Dracula to a crucifix. Costumes must be of a minimum size after the embarrassments of the late Eighties. And as for the smiling, let Andrea Holland, a former European champion who coached Britain's 1992 Olympic team, explain it.

"All that started because this is a sport that you have to try and make look easy, so people would smile to impress the judges. Nowadays, however, judges are better informed and know what technical aspects to look for.

"And if the routine is set to serious music, then the expressions have to reflect that. We don't want smiling all the time," she said.

The sport has also acted to discourage freakish displays of breath-holding, another time-honoured tactic to impress the judges. Such tactics were leading to instances of girls blacking out - on one occasion, in Sweden, a competitor died after hyperventilating.

In tandem with these changes, there has been an increasing awareness of the need for proper endurance training. Here is a typical day at training camp for Britain's elite performers, as described by Ann Webb, one of the British coaches:

"Three-mile run before breakfast. Then 200 stand-ups on chairs to warm up. Then three hours working in the pool. Lunch. Three more hours swimming. Then a one and a half hour walk-through [of the movements]."

One of those regularly putting in that kind of training session is Adele Carlsen, a 20-year-old member of the Farnborough-based Rushmoor Royals, who retained their team title at the weekend and recently featured on the television show How Do They Do That?

The knee-jerk reaction to her sport which she often encounters is something which clearly annoys her.

"When I have been training for nine hours in a freezing cold pool, pushing myself to the limits, and someone comes up to me and says what I do is stupid, that it's just a matter of smiling, sticking my legs in the air and splashing around in the water, then it does make me angry," she said.

The routine which Carlsen and her colleagues went through - a celebration of the Atlanta Games, with elements representing running, javelin throwing and high jumping - was faintly ironic, given that Britain missed out on qualifying for the team competition, which is now the sole Olympic event, by one place.

For a sport which, in terms of public profile, slips beneath the surface between Olympics, such a failure can be costly. Carlsen, for instance, had to be funded directly by the Amateur Swimming Association this year after her Sports Aid Foundation grant was discontinued. "When we failed to reach the Olympics, they didn't want to know," she said.

"I don't think the Government in this country takes sport that seriously," she added. "They think that we are still in the 1930s, and that Britain can just turn up and win off an hour a day's training. But so much has changed in this sport in the last 10 years. To do it properly, you have to be full-time."

It is a familiar situation, replicated in almost any sport you care to name in this country. But the continuing international popularity of synchronised swimming - it has been the first sport to sell out at each of the last three Olympics - is likely to provide the necessary stimulus to the domestic scene, if only every four years.

In the meantime, the 23rd National Synchronised Swimming Championships are in need of a sponsor...