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U.S. brings home bronze in synchronized swimming

MELBOURNE, Australia -- Russia remained the dominant force
in synchronized swimming, claiming another team title at the world
championships while the Americans rallied to finish third Sunday
night.

Russia won the free combination title with a near-perfect score
of 99.000 points, easily beating runner-up Japan (97.833). The
United States took its first medal of the championships, capturing
bronze at 96.500.


The U.S. team leapfrogged Spain, which was third entering the
final but dropped a spot when a disappointing routine earned a
score of 96.334.


"Beijing is calling," U.S. leader Andrea Nott said, looking
ahead to next year's Olympics. "Everything is building toward
that."


In their glittering turquoise suits, the Russians dazzled the
sparse crowd at Rod Laver Arena with a series of flips and complex
choreography during a routine that lasted just under 5 minutes.


The Russians received one perfect 10 in technical merit and
another in artistic impression. Their remaining scores were a
series of 9.9s, except a lone 9.7 for their artistic performance.


The winning team was led by the two Anastasias: Davydova and
Ermakova, who also were top qualifiers in the duet technical event.


This is the first year that FINA has awarded medals in both
technical and free combination events, but the Russians left little
doubt that they are still the top team -- no matter the format.


"The split has made judging non-objective," Ermakova said.
"When one medal involves both the technical and creative aspects,
it makes for a more difficult performance, and a more realistic
judgment. This is obviously just a way to take medals away from the
Russians."


Russia won the team title at the last four worlds, in addition
to capturing Olympic gold at Sydney and Athens. Their last major
international defeat was a fourth-place showing at the 1996 Atlanta
Games.

The U.S. team, a former power in the sport, devised an
innovative new routine to challenge Russia dominance after taking
bronze at the 2004 Athens Olympics.


"I don't really see the team as going through a rebuilding
phase as much as simply a building phase," Nott said. "We have
some young ones, and this is their first competition, but hopefully
we have been helping them through and making it easier for them."


The Americans had a breakthrough victory at the 2006 Synchro
World Trophy using moves designed by choreographer Stephan
Miermont, a former member of Cirque de Soleil who wanted to
showcase the women's acrobatic skills and fluid movements.


"It incorporated a lot of new ideas and had some interesting
transitions," Nott said. "We think we laid down the challenge
because now we see the other teams with new and interesting
transitions too."


Earlier Sunday, French star Virginie Dedieu made a dazzling
return to the pool in the solo free preliminaries.


With only four months to prepare for the world championships
after coming out of retirement, Dedieu scored three 10s and
finished with an overall score of 99.000 points.


A routine based on the life of opera star Maria Callas
positioned her as the top qualifier for Thursday's final.


"It was good at the beginning, even though I think there were
still a few technical flaws in it that I'd like to get rid of in
the final," Dedieu said. "It's one of the most difficult routines
I've ever swum. But I've chosen it because of the personality of
Maria Callas."


The 28-year-old Dedieu captured the world championship at
Montreal two years ago, then left the sport to pursue interior
design. She announced her return in November and is going for an
unprecedented third straight solo gold medal.


Russia's Natalia Ischenko (98.500) was second in the
preliminaries, followed by Spain's Gemma Mengual Civil (97.667) and
Christina Jones of the United States (95.333). The top 12 advanced
to the final.


Dedieu also was part of the French team that finished sixth in
the free combination final.