On the eve of the final team selection for the Australian Olympic synchronised swimming team, I thought I’d dive into (pardon the pun) a sport relatively unknown to me. Often times, when you think about synchronised swimming, you picture women in bloomers frolicking about in unison, wearing rubber daisy caps and uncomfortable nose plugs.
After speaking to the official synchronised swimming team doctor Roslyn Carbon, who has worked across several sports at six Olympic Games, I discovered it’s so much more than that. These women are true performers and incredibly talented athletes. Here’s why.
The origin of symmetry
“It was initiated in Australia by a woman named Annette Kellerman. She invented the Kellerman costume which was the one piece figure hugging swimming costume which was very scandalous at the time. Before that women had to wear the tunic and the pantaloons and they would drown. She persisted and became a champion swimmer, high-diver, did synchronised swimming moves and took it to North America."
"Synchronised swimming really took off in North America and the North Americans actually think they developed it but we all know otherwise but then it’s gone all over the world and it’s a very global sport, that’s something people don’t know.”
Breaking the surface
“[To get into the sport] In Australia you have to be lucky and be in three or four states - they’re in QLD, WA, Victoria and NSW.
Lap swimming isn’t for everyone, not everyone’s going to the the fastest and not everyone is going to find it fulfilling so if you're a really good speed swimmer that’s great but a lot of people aren’t and a lot of girls want something else. Those who naturally get in the water and can do handstands, play and who are creative in the water, this really suits them.
We also get ex-gymnasts, we get ex-dancers but if they’re not a good swimmer we send them to swimming clubs.
When they get good, they have to learn how to do what we call highlights which is throwing each other and we get trampolining coaches in or diving coaches who have those skills and they learn in harnesses because we gradually build it up. It’s a really difficult skill to be able to throw someone.”
Oxygen is overrated
“It’s probably the most complete sport. You have to have the basic skill of swimming and team members would have to be very good competitive swimmers. You also have to be totally flexible, you have to be a gymnast, you have to be brave and incredibly strong because they do a lot of lifts where they throw each other up in the air."
"You also have to be able to hold your breath for about a minute while swimming which is like running 400m holding your breath and they all have to do it perfectly together. I can’t really think of another sport that asks that much of an athlete.”
Funding = fundamental
“We’re probably the only team now at this level who aren’t full-time. We’re competing against teams who often live together, who are paid, bit like what the Matildas have gone through. Every other team would be funded and get a salary of some kind - Russia are very well paid because they’re full-time professionals. We are an Olympic sport that are completely unfunded.
Our main sponsor is the Georgina Hope Foundation, and Mrs Hancock has been very good to us. She’s paid for our coach - we wouldn’t have an international coach without her. But the athletes pay for all their training, they pay for all their travel.
If we were full-time professionals, it might take a month or two but we only come together for camps every month or so because that’s all we can afford. So it takes up much longer.”
Thrown in the deep end
“The problem that we’ve had is because the sport isn’t funded, Australian synchronised swimmers can only ever do one Olympics. There’s no longevity in the sport and that’s what we’re trying to change. We’ve got teenagers in the team who could go onto the next Olympics because then they’ll be really world class but we’ll never have that legacy because no one can do it to themselves. They can’t spend another four years not working and not earning any money.
"They’re very well educated women and they try to study and keep everything going but our limiting factor is that they can’t stay in the sport long enough to become really successful."
We make the Olympics but we haven’t at this stage really threatened to win medals because we’ve always got a first time team. There is only one girl, Bianca Hammett who was a part of the last Olympics campaign.”
What’s the selection process like for the Olympics?
“We got into the Olympics through the Oceania qualification system which is fantastic. We qualified with 12 team members, but by the end of the week, the team will be down to nine which is very sad. The team has been together for two and a half years but we have to get to a team of 9 to go to the Olympics.
The selections that have been made have to be sent to the Australian Olympic Commission and then they announce the team. All Olympians are actually selected and named by the Olympic Committee because you are no longer apart of the synchronised swimming team, you’re part of the Olympic team.”
“The costumes are actually whoppingly expensive. Each costume is hundreds of dollars because they’re handmade. The company we use in Queensland are basically are sponsor but last year we spent thousands of dollars to qualify for the Olympics."
"They have to be very strong, as light as they can be and there’s a lot of detail in them. We wear a little piece that holds the athletes’ hair together and they actually gel their hair down. They wear a little clip on their nose so they don’t take water into their nose when they’re upside down.”
Rio, way to go
“At the end of this month they’re going to Japanese Open, they then come back and have a couple more camps and then go to the Spanish Open, then they come back and then go to Rio. We’re nearly there. These upcoming events are big competitions that we want to go and be seen at.”