Physically demanding yet eternally graceful, the women’s duets hit the Aquatics Centre

By Katie Garner

I’ve always been fascinated by synchronised swimming, and to be honest, simply baffled by the pairs sheer ability to be so in tune with each other, that every single movement is in unison. I’ve seen this sport in passing, but never close up, so when it appeared on one of the numerous Olympic channels, I plonked myself down on the sofa to learn more about this elusive sport.

For starters, I never knew that the swimmers are not allowed to touch the floor – if they do, they receive a penalty on their scores. This means that their muscle strength needs to be enormous to keep up with the high intensity leg and arm movements, without respite for at least three and a half minutes. It may sound easy, but the speed and skill of the routines are deceptive, with the swimmers spending at least a year to perfect a single routine, making what actually takes great effort, appear completely effortless.

This incredibly precise and exacting sport first joined the Olympic rota in Los Angeles in 1984, with its roots in water ballet. Although men also do synchronised swimming, it is not actually recognised as an Olympic sport, so it’s just the women who get to compete in the duet and team events.

When I tuned into the synchronised swimming, it was the second day of competing and the turn of the free routines, which are all about creativity, artistic interpretation and original choreography. On the first day of the swimming it was all about the technical routines, so all of the couples already had scores out of 100 for their first routines. These free routines are also out of 100, with 50 points up for grabs based on technical ability and execution, and the other 50 for artistic impression on the routine. Both of these sections are scored by two separate panels of judges so even the scoring is completely exact with the judges pinpointing on what they are studying in the routines.  Each of the free routines has to be roughly three minutes and 30 seconds long.

I also picked up a few tips on what the right thing is in synchronised swimming, such as progression around the pool is super important, showing judges that the swimmers have stamina to continue movement. I also learnt that hybrids were a unique mix of leg movements that each duo works on for their routines to create various effects. Appearance is such a massive part of this sport as well, with really intricate costumes and waterproof make up, that is heavily applied so that even the people sitting in the furthest away rows can see. The costumes play an even bigger part in these free routines, as they can tell the audience the theme that they are going to follow in their routines.

24 duets took part in this preliminary round, with the top 12 going through to the final. Since there are so many competitors here, I’m just going to give you a rundown of my top five pairs…


Russia are the most experienced in this genre of swimming, as they have won the Olympic gold medal since 2000, which is such an impressive achievement. This routine definitely didn’t disappoint, and they had a fantastically fun theme of rag dolls and toys, with doll faces splashed over their costumes. The musicality with this was great, as they adopted lots of puppet like movements in their routine, for example, grabbing the straps of their costumes and moving their arms around, like the puppet master controlling the arm swings. They had such good footwork as well, being the first pair to really mix up the pointed toes and the flat foot position which created a really attractive visual that worked so well with the angled legwork and fast pace. They also did some good connected actions, staying in touch by their toes. Their assisted lifts also fitted the theme, especially their last one, with the typical doll-like pose of arms and legs outstretched with head to the side.  With such a polished performance, it’s only natural that they rocket into first place as soon as they step out the pool.


This pairing were all about the artistic development and original and organic production of their performance. They also had excellent footwork, with both their feet and legs going in all different directions with really lovely unison. Their intricate routine was set to dramatic classical music. I especially liked the section they did where they acted as each other’s mirror image applying make-up and doing their hair as if getting ready for an evening out. This was really different to anything that was seen in the other performances.


Another great theme from the Canadian duet as they went for a court jester, clown like showing, complete with coloured patchwork costumes and bundles of free spirit and fun. There was a real fun house feel with the barmy musical melody, combined so well with the wacky leg and foot movements that emphasised the theme and creativity involved. It was playful, yet packed with content, and was such a difficult routine. It’s difficulty level was actually so high, that the swimmers in fact rarely swum it all the way through, so to excel so much in this performance was fantastic. Really enjoyed it.


Again, another performance packed with personality, with an ingenious wolf theme – right down from the title to the music, the howling wolf on the costumes and the constant animalistic movements that frequented the routine. The leg twists were so speedy, and the whole routine was in fact fast paced. I think they were also really imaginative with their choreography, as they came out of the water at one point, holding each other’s chins, before letting out an upwards spray of water from their mouths. Really unique and the character of the piece worked so well. It was also well maintained throughout.


Taking inspiration from the classic ballet Swan Lake, this performance combined the black and white swan to create an elegant and graceful culmination of artistic talent. Lots of their movements involved both legs out of the water, which is a higher difficulty rating than just the one. I loved the ending, as they used their arms to create a swan shape, with one arm forming the elongated neck and beak, and the second swimmer using her arm to make the back and wing. Such a nice finishing touch.  Full of twists and spins, again it was fast paced with plenty of travelling and movement.

The top 12 include Russia at number one spot, closely followed by China in second place and Spain third, with team GB also through in 9th place.