Olympic quiz: Your hair is slicked back with flavorless gelatin, your eyes are decorated with elaborate makeup, and you've just firmly secured your nose clip—what sport are you about to perform? Nothing? It's synchronized swimming and its one of the most elaborate events at the Olympics. With team finals looming this weekend (Fri. and Sat. at 3:00 am ET) we began to wonder: Where did this sport come from? What exactly is it? And why is this the most bizarrely interesting sport in the Olympics? We got the sports' experts to explain.
Whom do we owe the pleasure of inventing this lovely sport? Dawn Bean, author of Synchronized Swimming, An American History: In 1907 Australian swimmer and actress Annette Kellerman debuted an underwater ballerina routine at the New York Hippodrome. That performance was the basis for what became modern synchronized swimming. That's all it takes to become an Olympic sport? Bean: Back then there were very few sports activities acceptable for girls. So it was something that we could all do. It was very popular. It was a water show! It's one of the only Olympic sports that guys aren't allowed to participate in, how does that happen? Bean: When it became an official sport in 1941, the AAU banned men from competing. It was the prudishness of the times, but when it became an Olympic sport in '84 they kept the rule. Underwater speakers have always been cool in our book, what exactly happens under there? Heather Olson, head coach of national champ Stanford University team and NBC announcer: In a typical 4-minute routine these athletes have to hold their breath for over two minutes—while they're upside down! That sounds tough. Olson: It takes the finesse and control of a dancer, the power and flexibility of a gymnast, breath control like a free diver or big wave surfer, the propulsion of a swimmer and the leg power of a water polo player. Some of the throws they execute can be as high as 10-15 feet above the water. No touching the bottom. Is that why Russia dominates? Tammy McGregor, 1996 Gold Medalist and head coach of the U.S. team: In Russia they are all the same height and weight [We heard that even they even have the exact same arm lengths too!]. America is more of a melting pot. We have everything from 5'3" to 5'9" players on our team. The Russians are machines. What are the U.S.'s chances this Olympics? McGregor: Our free team routine contains a lot of stuff people have never seen before. We have never performed it outside the U.S. but the people we've shown it to say it's the greatest free routine they've ever seen. Innovative choreography is like fashion. In order to start a trend, you have to go out on a limb. We've gone out on a limb for the games. We've heard there are some pretty weird routines (the '96 French team choreographed a reenactment of Nazis leading Jews to a concentration camp—luckily cooler heads prevailed before it had a chance to debut) what's the weirdest routine you've seen? Olson: This year Spain tried to pass a new swimsuit for the team competition that had battery-powered lights. I'm relieved the suit did not pass inspection.
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