MADRID (Reuters) - Synchronized swimming is perhaps the most deceptive of all Olympic sports.
Behind the lipstick, hair gel, fixed smiles and sequined swimsuits lurks a lung-bursting test of athleticism, artistry, and technical skill.
When the sport made its first appearance at the Olympics in Los Angeles in 1984, its detractors mocked its inclusion and compared it to the Busby Berkeley 1940s Hollywood water spectaculars popularized by former swimmer Esther Williams.
One look at the training schedule of the swimmers, however, is enough to divest any remaining skeptics of the misapprehension that this is a lightweight Olympic discipline.
“We train between eight and nine hours a day,” Spain’s leading synchronized swimmer Gemma Mengual told Reuters television at a recent pre-Olympic competition in Barcelona.
“In the morning we work on the physical elements and do some work in the gym. Then we are into the water, we grab some lunch and then get back in the water until 7 or 8 at night until everything is perfect or near perfect.”
The precision routines require swimmers to hold their breath for periods of more than a minute while carrying out a succession of dizzying turns, kicks and flips, most of which are done while upside down in the water.
When they do emerge, they have to resist the temptation to gasp for air and keep smiling as they attempt to make it all appear effortless. Little wonder, then, that synchronized swimmers are seen as a breed apart.
“I was the sort of child that you always had to drag out of the water,” Mengual told Spanish sports daily Marca in an interview earlier this year. “When they did get me out my lips were purple and my skin like a prune.
“I have always found it easy to move in the water and when I am not in it for two or three days my bones hurt. I need to be in the water all the time.”
Mengual, who won four golds at the European championships in Eindhoven in March this year, took up the sport after watching her cousin in an exhibition when she was just nine and has now been involved in the sport for nearly 23 years.
A household name in Catalunya, the 31-year-old trains at the High Performance Centre (CAR) in Barcelona and is followed around by a group of dedicated young female fans whenever she attends a competition in her home city.
Although the visual spectacle appeals to many, there is precious little glamour in the grueling training regime.
Mengual and duet partner Andrea Fuentes spend countless hours perfecting their moves, while three days a week they build endurance, swimming at least four kms in each session.
They swim lengths of the 50-metre pool underwater to increase their lung capacity and also have to make time for some dance and ballet.
Ahead of the Barcelona competition they stand together rehearsing the precise hand and head movements like twin robots.
Just before they are due to perform they whip out pocket mirrors to put the final touches to their waterproof make-up and march off to the edge of the pool to begin their routine which earns them first place in the competition ahead of Ukraine.
Mengual, who has attended two previous Olympics and finished just off the podium in both the duet and the team event at Athens, admits she is impatient to get on with what will be her last Games before retiring next year.
“We can’t wait to get started as you always get a bit anxious in the run-up to big events,” she told Reuters. “Physically we are in good form, so now we need to rest a bit, but I’m confident that we will swim very well when we get there.
“I think we have been training hard, we have changed a few things in the choreography and the coach is very happy with what we’ve been doing. I think we can do very well.”
Although she scooped the medals at the Europeans, Mengual is under no illusions as to the difficulties the pair face in Beijing especially when competing against the technically superior Russians who did not attend the championships.
“In Beijing the objective is to get amongst the medals and get as near as possible to perfection and the gold,” she said. “At the moment we think that Russia are the strongest team and we need to get as near as possible to them.
“I think the gold will be very difficult. China and Japan will be very strong and the United States will be somewhere thereabouts too.”
Fuentes agrees with her partner. “We are aiming for a medal,” she said. “Bronze might be a bit disappointing even though I have never won a medal before. Silver would be great and if we won gold it would be a dream come true.
“If the Russians make mistakes and we do the best possible we could win, but the silver is the most realistic option.”
Additional reporting by Lucia Ongai