The Australian synchronised swimming squad left Sydney for Rio this week. With military precision, the nine-member team marched determinedly, yet joyfully, across the airport tarmac, nose clips preventing the inhalation of jet fuel.
Remaining in strict unison, nine right arms suddenly raised sky-high before the team performed a canoe skull, dolphin arch, flamingo flutter, half-pike, eggbeater, split rocket, super sonic Pokémon shuffle sequence towards their charter flight.
Okay, I can confirm this terminology may not be entirely accurate. Also, this airport performance didn’t happen, except in my imagination.
While constructing a ‘synchro’ routine in my mind is an easy feat, the real thing takes supreme skill and athleticism. And that’s what makes the sport so great, according to Australian team member Nikita Pablo.
“You need so many different skills and qualities such as flexibility, stamina, endurance, fitness, coordination, team work, musicality, strength, creativity – it’s all mixed beautifully into one.
“It’s the perfect package.”
Before Tuesday’s flight, the Australian team had been at the AIS in Canberra refining their routines. The two-week camp comprised nine-hour days with up to six of those hours spent in the water.
As well as in-water training, strength and conditioning is crucial, particularly to perform “highlights”, the industry term for lifts and throws. It is a strict balancing act, as the athletes’ strength must not compromise their grace.
“We’re supposed to make our sport look really easy,” said 21-year-old Pablo.
“We’re not supposed to show that we’re tired or we need air or that our muscles are burning.”
The camp recorded two casualties. Bianca Hammett, the only remaining member of the 2012 team, departed Canberra with a broken toe while Amie Thompson collected a broken nose thanks to an underwater kick – unintentional, of course – from team-mate Danielle Kettlewell.
Pablo said the proximity of the swimmers during training and competition created the perfect environment for injuries to thrive.
“We get a lot of bruises and cuts from the ‘eggbeater’ – (the technique) we do to keep our arms above water – but also concussions are becoming a really common in our sport,” she said.
“With our highlights, throwing people up in the air, girls can fall on each other.”
Pablo, who was born on the Gold Coast but grew up in Aruba, said loss of consciousness has also been problematic for the sport given the regular need for swimmers to hold their breath. While synchronised swimmers boast exceptional aerobic capacity, Pablo said it was a misconception that they hold their breath for a long time and, in fact, they shouldn’t.
“It’s more about managing your breath,” she said.
“Throughout our whole routine we’re breathing for 10 seconds then not breathing for maybe 20 seconds at a time.
“Our sport just keeps pushing boundaries and some swimmers push themselves too much.”
Australia set off for Rio this week with modest expectations. The team is hoping to match its Olympic-best finish of seventh out of eight competing nations, a result recorded in Beijing in 2008. Australia finished eighth in the team event in 2012.
Pablo will also feature in the duet event, alongside team-mate Rose Stackpole.
Russia has won every synchronised swimming gold medal on offer since Sydney 2000 and remains the team to beat in Rio. Other powerhouses include China, Japan and the USA while Spain, traditionally a podium finisher, failed to qualify for the 2016 Games.
It is not a void Australia expects to fill, but it does give rise to the idea that anything’s possible.
“It does change everyone’s perspective,” Pablo said.
“It proves you don’t know what to expect. Anything can happen.
“We want to enjoy the journey, be proud of our routine and prove that with hard work, positivity and proper recovery, we can achieve our goals and do our best swim ever.”
Duets: August 14-16
Teams: August 18-19