Synchronised swimming, referred to by international governing body FINA as artistic swimming since 2017, is a hybrid form of swimming, dance, and gymnastics, consisting of swimmers performing a synchronised routine (either solo, duet, trio, mixed duet, free team, free combination, and highlight) of elaborate moves in the water, accompanied by music. Artistic swimming is governed internationally by FINA, and has been part of the Summer Olympics programme since 1984.
Russian synchronised swimming team, May 2007
|Highest governing body||FINA|
|Olympic||Part of the Summer Olympic programme since 1984|
Synchronised swimming demands advanced water skills, requires great strength, endurance, flexibility, grace, artistry and precise timing, as well as exceptional breath control when upside down underwater. Competitors show off their strength, flexibility, and aerobic endurance required to perform difficult routines. Swimmers perform two routines for judges, one technical and one free, as well as age group routines and figures. Synchronized swimming is both an individual and team sport. Swimmers compete individually during figures, and then as a team during the routine. Figures are made up of a combination of skills and positions that often require control, strength, and flexibility. Swimmers are ranked individually for this part of the competition. The routine involves teamwork and synchronisation. It is choreographed to music and often has a theme.
Since the 20th century, synchronised swimming has predominantly been considered a women's sport, with the Summer Olympics only featuring women's duet and team events. However, international, national and regional competitions may allow men to compete, and FINA introduced a new mixed duet competition at the 2015 World Aquatics Championships. FINA officially renamed the sport from "synchronized swimming" to "artistic swimming" in 2017—a decision that has faced mixed reception.
At the turn of the 20th century, synchronised swimming was known as water ballet. The first recorded competition was in 1891 in Berlin, Germany. Many swim clubs were formed around that time, and the sport simultaneously developed in Canada. As well as existing as a sport, it often constituted a popular addition to Music Hall evenings, in the larger variety theatres of London or Glasgow which were equipped with on-stage water tanks for the purpose.
In 1907, Australian Annette Kellerman popularised the sport when she performed in a glass tank as an underwater ballerina (the first water ballet in a glass tank) in the New York Hippodrome. After experimenting with various diving actions and stunts in the water, Katherine Curtis started one of the first water ballet clubs at the University of Chicago, where the team began executing strokes, "tricks," and floating formations. On May 27, 1939, the first U.S. synchronised swimming competition took place at Wright Junior College between Wright and the Chicago Teachers' College.
In 1924, the first competition in North America was in Montreal, with Peg Seller as the first champion.
Other important pioneers for the sport are Beulah Gundling, Käthe Jacobi, Marion Kane Elston, Dawn Bean, Billie MacKellar, Teresa Anderson, Gail Johnson, Gail Emery, Charlotte Davis, Mary Derosier, Norma Olsen and Clark Leach. Charlotte Davis coached Tracie Ruiz and Candy Costie, who won the gold medal in duet synchronised swimming at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.
In 1933 and 1934, Katherine Whitney Curtis organised a show, "The Kay Curtis Modern Mermaids", for the World Exhibition in Chicago. The announcer, Norman Ross, introduced the sport as "synchronised swimming" for the first time. The term eventually became standardised through the AAU, but Curtis still used the term "rhythmic swimming" in her book, Rhythmic Swimming: A Source Book of Synchronised Swimming and Water Pageantry (Minneapolis: Burgess Publishing Co., 1936).
Curtis persuaded the AAU to make synchronised swimming an officially recognised sport in December 1941, but she herself transferred overseas in 1943. She served as the Recreation Director of the Red Cross under Generals Patton and Eisenhower, during which time she produced the first international aquacade in Caserta, Italy. She was the Director of Travel in post-war Europe until 1962. In 1959 the Helms Hall of Fame officially recognised Curtis (along with Annette Kellerman) – ascribing to her the primary development of synchronised swimming. In 1979 the International Swimming Hall of Fame inducted Curtis with similar accolades.
The first Official National Team Championships were held in Chicago at Riis Pool on August 11, 1946. The Town Club 'C' team were the first national champions. The team was composed of: Polly Wesner, Nancy Hanna, Doris Dieskow, Marion Mittlacher, Shirley Brown, Audrey Huettenrauch, Phyllis Burrell and Priscilla Hirsch.
Esther Williams, a national AAU champion swimmer, popularized synchronised swimming during WWII and after, through (often elaborately staged) scenes in Hollywood films such as Bathing Beauty (1944), Million Dollar Mermaid (1952), and Jupiter's Darling (1955). In the 1970s and 1980s, Ft. Lauderdale swimming champion Charkie Phillips revived water ballet on television with The Krofftettes in The Brady Bunch Hour (1976–1977), NBC's The Big Show (1980), and then on screen with Miss Piggy in The Great Muppet Caper (1981).
Margaret Swan Forbes published Coaching Synchronized Swimming Effectively in 1984; it was the first official teaching manual for synchronized swimming.
In the late 19th century, synchronised swimming was a male-only event. However, in the 20th century it became a women's sport, with men banned from many competitions. In the U.S., men were allowed to participate with women until 1941, when synchronised swimming became part of the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU). The AAU required men and women to compete separately, which resulted in a decline of male participants. In the 1940s and 1950s, Bert Hubbard and Donn Squire were among the top US male competitors.
In 1978, the U.S. changed their rules to allow men to once again compete with women. Rules in other countries varied; in the UK, men were prohibited from competing until 2014, while in France, Benoît Beaufils was allowed to competed at national events in the 1990s. American Bill May was a top competitor in the late-1990s and early-2000s. He medalled in several international events, including the 1998 Goodwill Games. However, male competitors were barred from top competitions, including the World Aquatics Championships and the Olympics. However, at the 2015 World Aquatics Championships, FINA introduced a new mixed duet discipline. Both May and Beaufils returned from decade-long retirements to represent their countries. Among their competitors were Russian Aleksandr Maltsev and Italian Giorgio Minisini, both over 15 years younger than May and Beaufils. Pairs from ten countries competed in the inaugural events. The 2016 European Aquatics Championships was the first time men were allowed to compete at the European Championships. While men are allowed in more events, they were still barred from competing in the 2016 Summer Olympics. FINA did propose adding the mixed duet competition to the 2020 Summer Olympics.
In July 2017, following a request by the IOC, FINA approved changes to its constitution that renames synchronised swimming to artistic swimming. FINA justified the change by stating that it would help to clarify the nature of the sport (with the new name being similar to artistic gymnastics), and would help "enhance its popularity". The changes received criticism, with some swimmers and coaches arguing that the name "artistic swimming" diminishes the athleticism of the sport, and that rebranding federations and other groups involved in the sport would be costly. Deputy Prime Minister of Russia Vitaly Mutko vowed that the country would still refer to the sport as synchronised swimming, stating that "to keep the name synchronised swimming is our right, and if the Federation itself, the coaches will want it, we will do it".
The first Olympic demonstration was at the 1952 Olympic Games, where the Helsinki officials welcomed Kay Curtis and lit a torch in her honor. Curtis died in 1980, but synchronised swimming did not become an official Olympic sport until the 1984 Summer Olympic Games. It was not until 1968 that synchronised swimming became officially recognized by FINA as the fourth water sport next to swimming, platform diving and water polo.
From 1984 through 1992, the Summer Olympic Games featured solo and duet competitions, but they were both dropped in 1996 in favor of team competition. At the 2000 Olympic Games, however, the duet competition was restored and is now featured alongside the team competition.
World Aquatics Championships
Artistic swimming has been part of the World Aquatics Championships since the beginning. From 1973 through 2001, the World Aquatics Championships featured solo, duet and team competitions. In 2003, a free routine combination, comprising elements of solo, duet and team, was added. In 2005, it was renamed free combination. In 2007, solo, duet and team events were split between technical and free routines. Since 2007, seven World championship titles are at stake. In 2015, the mixed duet (technical and free) were added to the competition program.
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Sculls (hand movements used to propel the body) are some of the most essential part to synchronised swimming. Commonly used sculls include support scull, stationary scull, propeller scull, alligator scull, torpedo scull, split scull, barrel scull, spinning scull and paddle scull. The support scull is used most often to support the body while a swimmer is performing upside down.
The support scull or "American Scull" was invented by Marion Kane Elston and propelled the sport to new heights. The sport was transformed from water ballet to the athleticism of modern-day synchronized swimming. See the International Swimming Hall of Fame as a reference.
Support scull is performed by holding the upper arms against the sides of the body and the fore arms at 90-degree angles to the body, with hands facing the bottom of the pool. The fore arms are then moved back and forth while maintaining the right angle. The resulting pressure against the hands allows the swimmer to hold their legs above water while upside down.
The "eggbeater kick" is another important skill of synchronised swimming. It is a form of treading water that allows for stability and height above the water while leaving the hands free to perform arm motions. An average eggbeater height is usually around collarbone level. Eggbeater is used in all "arm" sections, a piece of choreography in which the swimmer is upright, often with one or both arms in the air. Another variation is a body boost, which is executed through an eggbeater buildup and a strong whip kick, propelling the swimmer out of the water vertically. A body boost can raise a swimmer out of the water to hip level.
Lifts and highlights
A lift or highlight is when members of the team propel another teammate relatively high out of the water. They are quite common in routines of older age groups and higher skill levels. There are many variations on lifts and these can include partner lifts, float patterns or other areas of unique, artistic choreography intended to exceptionally impress the judges and audience.
Parts of a successful lift
There are three parts to every lift in artistic swimming: The top (or "flyer"), the base, and the pushers. *Sometimes there is no base and the pushers push the flyer directly*
- The Flyer is usually the smallest member of the team. Flyers must be agile and flexible, with a preferable gymnastics background if they are jumping off the lift.
- The Base tends to be of average size. Intense leg strength and a solid core is mandatory as well as the ability to hold a squat position.
- The Feet/Lifters/Pushers are the team members that provide the force for the base to explosively stand up, and the flyer to gain height out of the water.
Common Types of highlights
- The platform Lift is the oldest form of highlight. In a platform, the base lays out in a back layout position underwater. The top sets in a squatting position on her torso and stands once the lift reaches the surface. The remaining teammates use eggbeater to hold the platform and the top out of the water.
- The stack Lift is the most common form of lifts in synchro. The base sets up in a squatting position a few feet underwater, with the lifters holding her legs and/or feet. The top then squats on the shoulders of the base. As the lift rises, lifters extend their arms while the base and top extend their legs to achieve maximum height. A common addition to a stack lift is a rotation while it ascends o descends.
- A toss or throw is set up exactly like a stack lift. However, when the lift reaches its full height, the "flyer" on top of the lift will jump off of their teammate's shoulders, usually performing some sort of acrobatic movement or position. This is a very difficult lift and should only be attempted by experienced swimmers.
- A basket or bunken toss is a newer form of highlight that utilizes a small platform created by the interlocking hands of two "feet" persons, with the flyer standing on their hands, and the base inverted standing on the underside of their hands. There will be one person lifting each of the "feet" persons waists, and another person deep under the highlight assisting the base in remaining vertical. These highlights are often used by national teams to achieve exceptional height out of the water for the flyer.
There are hundreds of different regular positions that can be used to create seemingly infinite combinations. These are a few basic and commonly used ones:
- Back Layout: The most basic position. The body floats, completely straight and rigid, face-up on the surface while sculling under the hips.
- Ballet Leg: Beginning in a back layout, one leg is extended and held perpendicular to the body, while the other is held parallel to the surface of the water.
- Bent Knee (or Heron): While holding a vertical body position, one leg remains vertical while the other leg bends so that its toe is touching the knee of the vertical leg.
- Crane: While holding a vertical body position, one leg remains vertical while the other is dropped parallel to the surface, making a 90-degree angle or "L" shape.
- Double Ballet Leg: Similar to ballet leg position where both legs are extended and held perpendicular to the body.
- Flamingo: Similar to ballet leg position where bottom leg is pulled into the chest so that the shin of the bottom leg is touching the knee of the vertical leg, while remaining parallel to the surface of the water.
- Front Layout: Much like a Back Layout, the only difference is that the swimmer is on his/her stomach, sculling by his/her chest, and not breathing.
- Knight: The body is in a surface arch position, where the legs are flat on the surface, and the body is arched so that the head is vertically in line with the hips. One leg is lifted, creating a vertical line perpendicular to the surface.
- Side Fishtail: Side fishtail is a position which one leg remains vertical, while the other is extended out to the side parallel to the water, creating a side "Y" position.
- Split Position: With the body vertical, one leg is stretched forward along the surface and the other extended back along the surface, in an upside down split position.
- Tub: Both legs are pulled up to the chest with the shins and tops of the feet dry and parallel on the surface of the water.
- Vertical: Achieved by holding the body completely straight upside down and perpendicular to the surface usually with both legs entirely out of water.
Further descriptions of technical positions can be found on the International Olympic Committee website.
Routines are composed of "figures" (leg movements), arm sections and highlights. Swimmers are synchronised both to each other and to the music. During a routine swimmers can never use the bottom of the pool for support, but rather depend on sculling motions with the arms, and eggbeater kick to keep afloat. After the performance, the swimmers are judged and scored on their performance based on execution, artistic impression, and difficulty. Execution of technical skill, difficulty, patterns, choreography, and synchronization are all critical to achieving a high score.
Technical vs. free routines
Depending on the competition level, swimmers will perform a "technical" routine with predetermined elements that must be performed in a specific order. The technical routine acts as a replacement for the figure event. In addition to the technical routine, the swimmers will perform a longer "free" routine, which has no requirements and is a chance for the swimmers to get creative and innovative with their choreography.
Length of routines
The type of routine and competition level determines the length of routines. Routines typically last two to four minutes, the shortest being the technical solo, with length added as the number of swimmers is increased (duets, teams, combos and highlight). Age and skill level are other important factors in determining the required routine length.
Routines are scored on a scale of 100, with points for execution, artistic impression, and difficulty. In group routines a group consists of 8 competitors for World Championships and FINA events, each missing participant brings penalty points to the team. A group can consist of a minimum of 4 competitors and a maximum of 10 (for Free Combination and Highlight). If a swimmer uses the bottom, they will be disqualified.
When performing routines in competition and practice, competitors wear a rubber noseclip to keep water from entering their nose when submerged. Some swimmers wear ear-plugs to keep the water out of their ears. Hair is worn in a bun and flavorless gelatin, Knox, is applied to keep hair in place; a decorative headpiece is bobby-pinned to the bun. Occasionally, swimmers wear custom-made swimming caps in place of their hair in buns.
Competitors wear custom bikinis, usually elaborately decorated with bright fabric and sequins to reflect the music to which they are swimming. The costume and music are not judged but create and aesthetic appeal to the audience.
Makeup is also worn in this sport, but FINA has required a more natural look. No "theatrical make-up" is allowed, only makeup that provides a natural, clean and healthy glow is acceptable. In Canada, eye makeup must be smaller than a circle made by the swimmers thumb and forefinger, and be used solely for "natural enhancement".
Underwater speakers ensure that swimmers can hear the music and aid their ability to synchronize with each other. Routines are prepared and set to counts in the music, to further ensure synchronization. Coaches use underwater speakers to communicate with the swimmers during practice. Goggles, though worn during practice, are not permitted during routine competition.
A standard meet begins with the swimmers doing "figures", which are progressions between positions performed individually without music. All swimmers must compete wearing the standard black swimsuit and white swimcap, as well as goggles and a noseclip. Figures are performed in front of a panel of 5 judges who score individual swimmers from 1 to 10 (10 being the best). The figure competition prefaces the routine events.
In the United States
In the United States, competitors are divided into groups by age. The eight age groups are: 12 and under, 13–15, 16–17, 18–19, Junior (elite 15–18), Senior (elite 15+), Collegiate, and Master. In addition to these groups, younger swimmers may be divided by ability into 3 levels: Novice, Intermediate, and Junior Olympic. Certain competitions require the athlete(s) to pass a certain Grade Level. Grades as of now range from Level one to Level five, and will soon go to Level ten. Seasons range in length, and some swimmers participate year-round in competitions. There are many levels of competition, including but not limited to: State, Regional, Zone, Junior Olympic, and US Junior and Senior Opens. Each swimmer may compete in up to four of the following routine events: solo, duet, combo (consisting of four to ten swimmers), and team (consisting of four to eight swimmers). In the 12 & under and 13-15 age groups, figure scores are combined with routines to determine the final rankings. The 16-17 and 18-19 age groups combine the scores of the technical and free routines to determine the final rankings. USA Synchro's annual intercollegiate championships have been dominated by The Ohio State University, Stanford University, Lindenwood University, and The University of the Incarnate Word.
In Canada, synchronized swimming has an age-based Structure system as of 2010 with age groups 10 & under, 12 & under, and 13–15 for the provincial levels. There is also a skill level which is 13–15 and juniors (16–18) known as national stream, as well as competition at the Masters and University levels. 13–15 age group and 16–18 age group are national stream athletes that fall in line with international age groups – 15 and Under and Junior (16–18) and Senior (18+) level athletes. There are also the Wildrose age group. This is for competitors before they reach 13–15 national stream. Wildrose ranges from Tier 8 and under to 16 and over provincial/wildrose. These are also competitive levels. There are also the recreational levels which are called "stars". Synchro Canada requires that a competitor must pass Star 3 before entering Tier 1. To get into a Tier a swimmer must take a test for that Tier. In these tests, the swimmer must be able to perform the required movements for the level. (Canada no longer uses Tiers as a form of level placement). The Canadian University Synchronized Swimming League is intended for Canadian Swimmers who wish to continue their participation in the sport, as well as offering a "Novice" category for those new to the sport. Traditionally, the top teams hail from McGill University, Queens University and the University of Ottawa.
In their 2012 book Concussions and Our Kids, Dr. Robert Cantu and Mark Hyman quoted Dr. Bill Moreau, the medical director for the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC), as saying, "These women are superior athletes. They're in the pool eight hours a day. Literally, they're within inches of one another, sculling and paddling. As they go through their various routines, they're literally kicking each other in the head." Dr. Moreau said that during a two-week training session in Colorado Springs, the female athletes suffered a 50% concussion rate. As a result, the USOC began reassessing concussion awareness and prevention for all sports.
Others believe the incidence of concussions among synchronized swimmers is much higher, especially among the sport's elite athletes. "I would say 100 percent of my athletes will get a concussion at some point," said Myriam Glez, chief executive of U.S.A. Synchro, the sport's national organizing body. "It might be minor, might be more serious, but at some point or another, they will get hit."
Synchronised swimmers often suffer from tendon injuries, as the sport tends to cause muscle imbalances. Common joint injuries include the rotator cuff and the knees.
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- Concussions and Our Kids: America's Leading Expert On How To Protect Young Athletes and Keep Sports Safe, Robert Cantu, M.D. and Mark Hyman, New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012, pages 35-36. Dr. Cantu is a neurologist and Mr. Hyman, a sports journalist. They have written a book for the interested layperson.
- Belson, Ken (July 18, 2016). "Synchronized Swimmers Find Danger Lurking Below Surface: Concussions". The New York Times. Retrieved 21 July 2016.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to synchronized swimming.|
- Artistic swimming on FINA.org