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To those who dare question the audacity of her sport, Australian artistic swimmer Amie Thompson tells a story: About the day a teammate accidentally landed on Thompson’s face, broke her nose and filled the water with blood.
While they focused on preparing for the 2016 Rio Olympics, none of Thompson’s teammates — including one who was going to Rio with a broken toe — even noticed at first.
“I took the afternoon off and was back in the pool the next day,” says Thompson, who is competing again this year in Tokyo.
Forget boxing or rugby. Perhaps the most hardcore sport at the Tokyo Games is simply artistic swimming.
The sport once known as synchronized swimming, long misunderstood and reviled as a frothy, performative spectacle, has quickly evolved into one of the most physically grueling specialties in the Olympics, with athletes training up to 10 hours a day.
“It’s definitely the most underrated athletic talent in the sport, but I think it’s really the most demanding sport there is in the Olympic program,” said Adam Andrasko, CEO of USA Artistic Swimming. “It’s very, very difficult, even for high-level athletes, to understand what it takes to be an artistic swimmer.”
So what does it take? The strength and power of weightlifters, the speed and lung capacity of distance swimmers, the flexibility and skill of gymnasts and the ability to perform in perfect sync with the music and with each other. And all while looking easy – and without ever touching the bottom of the pool.
“Imagine sprinting all the way underwater, chlorine in your eyes, holding your breath, and trying to line up with seven of your other colleagues,” said Kim Davis, president of Artistic Swimming Australia.
As for swimmers without perfect vision? Sync or swim, baby. Unlike other swimming events at the Olympics, synchronized goggles are prohibited. And because artistic swimmers are also criticized for their presentation and eye contact with the judges (which is why they wear heavy eye makeup that emphasizes their facial expressions), they can’t exactly get out of the water while squinting and rubbing their eyes.
A few artistic swimmers have found ways to keep their contact lenses in place underwater, which also helps protect their eyes from the chlorine burn. But generally they fly – er, swim – blind.
An increasing focus in recent years on making the routines more difficult in an effort to score higher points has made the movements faster and the lifts higher, and reduced the distance between swimmers from a few feet to several inches.
Among all flying limbs, kicks to the head are common, and consequently concussions. At the elite level, each team generally gets a few concussions a year, Davis says.
The frequency of concussions astonished Bill Moreau, who served as vice president of sports medicine for the United States Olympic Committee from 2009 to 2019. During his tenure, he attended a training camp for the American Artistic Swim Team in Colorado Springs. In just two weeks, 50 percent of the team suffered a concussion, an incidence rate that surpasses both American and Australian football concussions in a comparable period, he says.
“This sport is much more than the aesthetics that we can all see above water,” Moreau said by email. “Underwater, they fight against gravity to carry out their routine. These swimmers are truly athletes and they should be given the same level of respect as other sports that bring in more revenue and television coverage.”
The intensity of the routines and the long stretches that swimmers have to hold their breath for has caused some athletes to pass out during performances.
Swimming’s global governing body, FINA, now warns in its jury handbook that artistic swimmers who hold their breath for longer than 45 seconds are at risk of hypoxia.
Although the sport focuses less on breath-holding than it used to, swimmers still spend a significant portion of their performance below the surface. For example, the Australian team is underwater for a total of two minutes and 20 seconds from their four-minute routine, Thompson says.
In June, American artistic swimmer Anita Alvarez briefly lost consciousness at the end of her duet routine during the Olympic qualifier in Barcelona.
After seeing the 24-year-old slip beneath the surface, coach Andrea Fuentes pulled down her mask and, fully clothed, dived into the pool to rescue her.
Alvarez, who has since undergone a battery of medical tests, says she’s still not sure why she passed out that day. But she suspects it was a mixture of physical and emotional exhaustion, plus the specific movements at the end of the routine.
Exhausted from the performance, set to Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy,” Alvarez and her partner emerged from an underwater world turned upside down and swung their heads back in one final wave.
“It was a super intense and stressful match,” said Alvarez, who will participate in the duet event in Tokyo. The day before the passing out, she and her team had missed qualifying for the team event in Tokyo by just 0.2 points.
She had barely slept and had just finished a series of extremely long days in the pool. The free duet, which lasts three and a half minutes, is also one of their hardest routines.
But pushing their bodies to the limit is all part of the deal for artistic swimmers, Alvarez says. Just think of their typical training regimen, which consists of an hour of strength training and stretching on land, followed by another 8 hours — or more — in the water.
“If someone who doesn’t know our sport hears about our daily workout, they think we’re crazy,” Alvarez says. “Even other professional athletes think we’re crazy. Just knowing what we’re doing on our own in a day is enough to see how intense and really hard it is.”
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