It's probably the most ridiculed sport in the world, but also one of the most difficult and demanding. Steven Hastings investigates the ever-smiling world of synchronised swimming.
In what sporting competition can you carry off the trophy by doing lobster, dolphin and torpedo moves to a medley of Tom Jones hits? The answer is the annual schools synchronised swimming championships, held in Worcester earlier this month.
When sychronised swimming first splashed on to our television screens during the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, it quickly became the butt of a thousand jokes. Many questioned its status as a sport.
But if you doubt whether it deserves to be taken seriously, just try a few simple exercises next time you're at the local pool. Use only your feet as paddles to raise and hold the top half of your body out of the water in a vertical position (the egg-beater). Or try swimming feet-first using only your hands to propel yourself. You'll soon discover the extraordinary level of fitness needed. When tested and compared with other Olympic athletes, synchro swimmers ranked second only to long-distance runners in terms of aerobic capacity and to gymnasts for flexibility.
"Synchronised swimming is fantastically healthy," says Liz Hartley, of the English Schools Swimming Association. "It has all the benefits of swimming, so it's good for the heart and builds up muscles, but it also involves lots of stretching and improves suppleness and co-ordination in the same way as dance or gymnastics."
The demands of synchronised swimming don't stop there. Competitors need expert breath control, an understanding of the laws of propulsion physics... and a grin like a Cheshire cat. They also, very definitely, need a noseclip.
It's the fixed smile and the bright orange noseclip which can sometimes attract ridicule, but they're both essential, explains Anna Rawsthorne, 17, of Bradford girls' grammar school. "The smiling is all part of the performance. You're playing up to the judges - no one wants to watch miserable, expressionless swimmers. And the clips are vital. Without them you'd get water rushing up your nose all the time. I know from experience that if your noseclip comes off during a routine you're in big trouble."
Anna took up synchronised swimming at the age of 11 and six years later is helping to coach children lower down the school. This is her fourth appearance at the schools championships - which are in their twentieth year - but this year for the first time she has also been the team coach, responsible for choreographing all the routines.
Currently studying for A-levels in psychology and classical Greek, she hopes to take psychology at Manchester university next year. She chose Manchester partly because Trafford Swimming Club has one of the best synchronised swimming teams in the country.
Anna has been selected for the North-Eastern Counties synchro squad, another step towards her ambition of making the national squad - even though at only 17 she feels time may be against her. "The average age of the British team is falling all the time," she says.
Competition has been fierce since the sport was recognised as an Olympic event. That acceptance was a long time coming, however. Avery Brundage, a long-standing president of the International Olympics Committee, was a bitter opponent and it was only after his death in 1975 that things began to change. The criteria which had to be met included "widespread participation over at least three continents" and "evidence of an enthusiastic and understanding public".
The latter test proved difficult to pass. But despite the efforts of its opponents, the sport managed to keep its head above water and after 10 years of worldwide competition made its first Olympic appearance in Los Angeles in 1984.
Britain has rarely made much of a splash, and for the first time will not be represented in synchronised swimming at the Olympics this summer. The current squad finished only tenth at the European championships and so failed to make the final qualifying competition for Sydney. The failure has prompted the Amateur Swimming Association to set up a national development programme to identify and develop young talent so that in future years Britain will be able to compete against the synchronised superpowers such as Canada, the US, and the gold medal favourite, Russia.
Melanie Harris, who runs the scheme, hopes to encourage teachers to incorporate synchro into swimming lessons. "We're putting together a resources pack, with videos and posters which will demonstrate some of the basic moves," she says. "We're also going to be running one-day courses around the country aimed at giving teachers a basic introduction to the sport."
Each routine lasts only four minutes, but months of hard work go into choosing the music, plotting the choreography and, above all, practising the moves. The competitors, who must be aged 11 to 19, work in twos (duets) or in groups of between four and eight (teams). The more people in a team, the harder it is to synchronise their movements.
The key is to be aware of your team-mates and the position of your own body. The ability to count the beats of the music is also important. Not that listening to the music is an easy task when you spend half the routine with your head below water; competition pools have to be fitted with underwater speakers to help the swimmers keep time.
Marks are awarded for technical merit and artistic impression and, as in ice skating, the scores are held aloft by a team of judges. "The technical skills carry most marks," explains one of the judges, "but it's often the performance elements that make the difference. Sometimes the personalities of the swimmers come across very clearly; it can be like a piece of theatre."
This is the appeal of synchronised swimming - that it manages to be both a sport and an art form. As one competitor puts it: "I love dancing and I've always liked swimming, so taking up synchronised swimming was the obvious thing to do. It's been great for my confidence in a way that ordinary swimming wouldn't have been."
Girls of any age who are competent swimmers can learn to "synchro". Often it appeals to those who find conventional sports unattractive. For a start, you don't need to be thin. It is layers of fat which make the body buoyant,so thin swimmers have to work much harder. It's one of the reasons why men - who have denser leg muscles - usually find the sport too challenging.
Synchronised swimming is also a popular sport among children with disabilities. Sue Ayres, of the English Schools Swimming Association, has worked for years with paraplegic children and was delighted when she spotted the benefits of synchronised swimming. "The children I work with are paralysed from the waist down, but they tend to have good buoyancy and tremendous upper-body strength. Throw in the fact that it's done to music, always an attraction to young people, and it makes it the perfect sport for them."
What all competitors enjoy, whether disabled or able-bodied, is the camaraderie which comes from working as a team. Most of the pairs in the schools duet competition have been swimming in tandem for some time. The winners, Melanie Parriss and Beth Gill, both 13, from Folkestone school, have an understanding built up over three years and will keep working together on their winning routine in preparation for the national club championships in November.
"I'm thrilled for them," says coach Laura Munday as her delighted duet parade in front of an admiring crowd. "You only have to look at their faces to see what it means to them. They won't ever forget today, and that's what synchro swimming's all about - smiling faces in and out of the pool."
Interested teachers or schools can contact Melanie Harris at the Amateur Swimming Association on 0116 2333 010 or e-mail email@example.com
In sync: birth of a sport.
* Synchronised swimming can be traced back to the 1890s when it was called "Scientific and Ornamental Swimming", performed only by men.
* In 1907 an Australian entrepreneur tours the US exhibiting a team of "ornamental lady swimmers" in a glass tank.
* In 1934 synchronised swimming takes on the form we know today with the introduction of music. The first clubs in England are Lewisham Ladies, in London, and Southport.
* During the 1940s synchronised swimming is known as "water ballet". Its star is Esther Williams, who appears in a series of films.
* Rules are laid down in 1945 and the term "synchronised swimming" is coined.
* The first World championships are held in 1975, with Britain finishing a creditable fourth.
* Almost a decade later, 1984, the event makes its first Olympic appearance in Los Angeles.
* Britain fails to qualify for Sydney Olympics. Amateur Swimming Association sets up national development plan.