Synchronized Swimming

Synchronized swimming is a water sport that combines elements of swimming, ballet, and gymnastics that are performed by individual athletes as well as by teams of athletes that perform as a coordinated unit. The swimmers complete a program of movements choreographed to music that are executed both on the surface and underwater. Like sports such as figure skating and rhythmic gymnastics, the aesthetics and the grace of synchronized swimming disguises the significant physical demands of competition.

Synchronized swimming was publicly demonstrated for the first time in 1907; the first organized synchronized swimming competition took place in Montreal in 1923. A series of Hollywood films produced in the late 1930s and early 1940s that featured former United States Olympic swimmer Ester Williams in a variety of choreographed swimming displays publicized the sport in North America. After a protracted campaign to secure Olympic status for the sport, women's synchronized swimming became a part of Olympic competition at the 1984 Summer Games. Men's synchronized swimming is a regional competition only.

Synchronized swimming is one of the five aquatics disciplines governed on a world basis by Federation Internationale de Natation de Amateur (FINA). FINA convenes annual world synchronized swimming championships, and it sanctions a variety of events on a regional basis. Synchronized swimming is organized on a club basis in most countries, as opposed to organization in school or university programs. Competitions are staged in Olympic standard swimming pools, with underwater cameras to permit viewing of the movements of the swimmers from all angles.

The competitive categories of synchronized swimming are solo, duet, team, and free combination. Synchronized swimming requires the athletes to complete a series of routines, some of which are predetermined, and others of which are performed in the manner determined by the athlete or the team. A typical competition will include a series of performance segments that represent a progression from "figures"—a series of "required elements," concluding with a free routine, where the routines contain FINA approved figures choreographed to music as selected by the team or the athlete. The team competitions (with up to 10 swimmers permitted on the team) may commence with the first portion of the routine on the pool deck, with a progression of movements to take the team into the water for the next segments of the team's presentation.

The judging of synchronized swimming is subjective. Judges are provided with various guidelines established by FINA as to the respective difficulty of certain figures and required elements. Judges use two general categories within which performances are assessed—technical merit (including degree of difficulty, degree of synchronicity, and execution of the movements) and artistic expression (choreography and manner of interpretation by the athletes).

Team synchronized swimming was first added to the Olympic Games in 1996.
Technical marks represent 60% of the score awarded, with artistic marks accounting for the remaining 40%.

Competitive synchronized swimming routines vary in length. The shortest routines, the figures portion of the competition, are 2 minutes long; the team free routine may be as long as 5 minutes. It is the nature of the sport that the swimmers may be underwater performing various choreographed movements for as long as 1 minute at a time, with some routines creating a cumulative underwater period of up to 3.5 minutes for each athlete. The sport imposes significant demands upon the athlete's cardiovascular and energy systems, both aerobic and anaerobic. In addition to the often attention attracting swim suits worn by the competitors, the most important item of equipment worn by the synchronized swimmers are their nose plugs, to prevent water from entering their nose and lungs as they spin underwater.

Balance and motor control skills are of prime importance to the synchronized swimmer. The swimmers are constantly changing their body positions in time with the music and the movements of their teammates. The athletes swim with their eyes open to both assist in maintaining their balance, and to maintain their orientation to both the walls of the pool and to their teammates. Muscle memory, also known as proprioception, is a physical skill developed by the synchronized swimmer through repetition of each element to a routine. When a particular routine has been practices hundreds of times, the athlete acquires an internal sense of where all parts of the body should be in relation to one another without significant conscious thought about each movement.

The demands associated with the execution of gymnastics movements in a water environment poses unique training challenges for the synchronized swimmer. To build for a competitive season, the athletes must develop a broad range of cardiovascular and musculoskeletal strength. Running, cycling, and free swimming are the aerobic sports that satisfy this aspect of the training demands of synchronized swimming. Many athletes engage in Pilates or Swiss ball training that focuses upon the development of the strength and the flexibility of the core area of the body, as the abdominal, lumbar (low back), groin, and gluteal muscles are subject to constant stresses in a synchronized swimming routine. The ability of the athlete to maintain perfect balance and physical symmetry while executing underwater somersaults and flips requires significant core strength.

Off season weight training, using free weights, machine circuit training, and plyometric routines to enhance leg strength prepare the athlete to move decisively and explosively in the water. Many synchronized swim routines require dynamic movement, where the athletes must power themselves from a significant distance below the water surface to perform a movement at the surface, and descend as quickly to the next element. Stretching and flexibility training is a year round essential to all synchronized swimming training programs; the sport demands optimal range of motion in the body's joints, as every musculoskeletal structure will be utilized in a synchronized swimming routine.

SEE ALSO Balance training and proprioception; Stretching and Flexibility; Swimming; Swimming strength training and exercises.