Brutal beauty: Is artistic swimming the hardest sport in Tokyo?

December 28, 2021

 Sydney-Australian artistic swimmer Amie Thompson (Amie Thompson) tells a story to those who dare to doubt the cruelty of the sport: About one day, a teammate accidentally landed on Thompson’s face and hit She broke her nose and poured blood into the water.

When they focused on preparations for the 2016 Rio Olympics, Thompson's teammates-including a teammate who went to Rio with an injured toe-didn't even notice at first.

"I took a rest for an afternoon and went back to the swimming pool the next day," said Thompson, who competed in Tokyo again this year.

Forget about boxing or football. The core sport of the Tokyo Olympics may be artistic swimming.

For a long time, this sport, once known as synchronized swimming, has been misunderstood and slandered as a performance spectacle, but it quickly developed into one of the most physically demanding specialties in the Olympics. Athletes train for up to 10 hours a day.

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"This is definitely the most underrated athletic talent in sports, but I think it is indeed the most demanding sport in the Olympics," said Adam Andrasco, CEO of American Artistic Swimming. "Even high-level athletes can hardly understand what it takes to become an artistic swimmer."

So what is needed? The strength and strength of weightlifters, the speed and vital capacity of long-distance swimmers, the flexibility and skills of gymnasts, and the ability to perfectly synchronize with music. At the same time make it look easy-and never touch the bottom of the pool. "Imagine you are sprinting underwater with chlorine in your eyes, hold your breath, and try to be consistent with the other seven colleagues," said King Davis, president of the Australian Artistic Swimming Association.

As for swimmers without perfect eyesight? Synchronize or swim, baby. Unlike other swimming events in the Olympic Games, swimming goggles are prohibited simultaneously. And because artistic swimmers have also been criticized for their performance and maintaining eye contact with the judges (which is why they wear heavy eye makeup to accentuate their expressions) they cannot completely squint and rub their eyes to surface from the water.

Some artistic swimmers have found a way to hold contact lenses in place underwater, which also helps protect their eyes from chlorine burns. But in general, they are flying—well, swimming—blindly.

In recent years, there has been increasing attention to making routines more difficult to achieve higher scores, which makes movements faster, improves higher, and reduces the distance between swimmers from a few feet to a few inches.

It is common for all limbs to be kicked in the dance, so the same is true for concussions. Davis said that at the elite level, each team usually deals with several concussions a year.

The frequency of concussions shocked Bill Moreau, who was the vice president of sports medicine for the U.S. Olympic Committee from 2009 to 2019. During his tenure, he participated in the training camp of the American Colorado Springs Artistic Swimming Team. He said that in just two weeks, 50% of the teams suffered a concussion, which has exceeded the rate of concussion in football in the United States and Australia in a similar time span.

"This sport is not just an aesthetic that all of us can see on the water," Moreau said through. "Underwater, they are fighting gravity to perform their daily tasks. These swimmers are indeed athletes and they deserve the same respect as other sports that generate more income and TV coverage."

The intensity of the routine and the long distance swimmers must hold their breath caused some athletes to pass out during the performance.

FINA, the global governing body of swimming, now warns in its judging manual that artistic swimmers who hold their breath for more than 45 seconds are at risk of hypoxia.

Although this sport does not focus on breath-holding techniques as before, most of the performance of swimmers is still below the water surface. Thompson said, for example, the Australian team spent a total of 2 minutes and 20 seconds underwater in their 4-minute routine.

In June, American artistic swimmer Anita Alvarez briefly lost consciousness at the end of a duet during the Barcelona Olympic qualifiers.

After spotting the 24-year-old girl sliding under the water, coach Andrea Fuentes pulled off her mask, put on her clothes, and dived into the swimming pool to rescue her.

Alvarez, who has undergone a series of medical examinations since then, said that she still does not know the exact reason for her fainting that day. But she suspects this is a mix of physical and emotional exhaustion, plus specific actions at the end of the routine.

After the performance, Alvarez and her partner withdrew from Billie Eilish's "bad guy", then came out of the underwater upside-down spin, and then suddenly turned back in the final boom.

"This is a very intense and stressful competition," said Alvarez, who will participate in a duet competition in Tokyo. On the day before the fainting incident, she and her team missed the qualifying round of the Tokyo Team Championship with a faint 0.2 points.

She barely slept and had just spent an extremely long day in the swimming pool. The 3.5-minute free duet is also one of their most difficult routines.

But Alvarez said that pushing his body to the limit is all about artistic swimmers. Think of their typical training regimen, which includes an hour of strength training and stretching exercises on land, followed by 8 hours or more of training in the water.

"Whenever people who don't understand our sports hear our daily training content, they think we are crazy," Alvarez said. "Even other professional athletes think we are crazy. Just knowing what we do in a day is enough to see how stressful and difficult it is."

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