Synchronized swimmers struggle for appreciation at worlds

Team Spain performs during the women's Free Combination Synchronized Swimming Preliminary at the 17th FINA World Championships 2017 in Budapest, Hungary, Thursday, July 20, 2017. (Zsolt Czegledi/MTI via AP)
Team Spain performs during the women's Free Combination Synchronized Swimming Preliminary at the 17th FINA World Championships 2017 in Budapest, Hungary, Thursday, July 20, 2017. (Zsolt Czegledi/MTI via AP)
Team Spain performs during the women's Free Combination Synchronized Swimming Preliminary at the 17th FINA World Championships 2017 in Budapest, Hungary, Thursday, July 20, 2017. (Zsolt Czegledi/MTI via AP)
Team North Korea performs during the women's Free Combination Synchronized Swimming Preliminary at the 17th FINA World Championships 2017 in Budapest, Hungary, Thursday, July 20, 2017. (Zsolt Czegledi/MTI via AP)
Team Japan performs during the Women's Free Combination Synchronized Swimming Preliminary Free Combination of the 17th FINA World Championships 2017 in Budapest, Hungary, Thursday, July 20, 2017. (Zsolt Czegledi/MTI via AP)
Team North Korea performs during the women's Free Combination Synchronized Swimming Preliminary at the 17th FINA World Championships 2017 in Budapest, Hungary, Thursday, July 20, 2017. (Zsolt Czegledi/MTI via AP)
Team Uzbekistan performs during the women's Free Combination Synchronized Swimming Preliminary at the 17th FINA World Championships 2017 in Budapest, Hungary, Thursday, July 20, 2017. (Zsolt Czegledi/MTI via AP)
Members of Team Macau perform during the Women's Free Combination Synchronized Swimming Preliminary Free Combination of the 17th FINA World Championships 2017 in Budapest, Hungary, Thursday, July 20, 2017. (Zsolt Czegledi/MTI via AP)

BUDAPEST, Hungary — Synchronized swimmers are unanimous in saying their sport doesn't get the respect or attention it truly deserves.

Despite the tremendous effort, discipline, physical strain and skill involved, many people still look down on a sport which is like a form of under and over water-ballet combining gymnastics, yoga and acrobatics.

"We wish for more attention," said Ukraine's Anna Voloshyna, who has won four bronze medals at the world championships this week.

After her fourth gold medal on Thursday, Svetlana Kolesnichenko revealed synchronized swimmers train for up to 12 hours each day.

"All our attempts weren't in vain," the 23-year-old Russian said after winning the duet free routine with Alexandra Patskevich.

Some question whether it is a sport considering the emphasis on artistic performance and spectacle. Those extravagant swimsuits, the performance makeup, the hair, the theater, the music all leave newcomers wondering if they're looking at sport, or a moving art form.

"It's a sport inspired by art. It's an artistic sport. When you see how they are physically, after a routine, then you know it's a sport," former Spain coach Ana Tarres told The Associated Press.

"The Russians are the best because they do better choreographies: Faster, sharper, higher," added Tarres, now working with China. "When we talk about this, we talk about sport, we don't talk about art."

Russia has again dominated synchro events at the worlds, winning five of six events so far this week.

Judges award points in three categories, for the execution of difficult skills and the synchronization between swimmers (30 per cent), artistic impression considering choreography and its relation to the music (40), and the difficulty of the moves (30).

"The whole reason for us to perform is to combine all the elements possible. It's not only the strength but the beauty we offer," Kolesnichenko said. "We are artists and sportspeople at the same time."

It can be confusing for newcomers because, as Tarres says, "it's difficult as a sport to make the public understand what's going on."

Yet spectators have been flocking to 5,000-seat capacity venue in Budapest's City Park to enjoy the show. It has been almost full for both finals and preliminaries, with boisterous supporters showing their appreciation.

Teams were greeted like rock stars when they performed in preliminaries, fans whooping and clapping along as they watched eight or ten swimmers perform as one. Thunderous applause followed each routine.

But outside world championships and Olympics, the sport is largely ignored. Even during tournaments, people not directly involved turn their noses up.

"It's something they can make fun of," China head coach Mayuko Fujiki told the AP. "It's not like figure skating where you can appreciate pretty much everything they do as an art."

There are also problems within.

Swimming's governing body FINA faced criticism Thursday for publishing a cropped photo of athletes' behinds in its in-house newspaper with a caption that said the photographer was "capable of finding beauty in everything" during the competitions.

"Very degrading and completely disregards the fact that these women are incredible athletes," said French former synchronized swimmer Christina Marmet, who runs the insidesynchro.org blog. "All their efforts and hard work get completely discredited when these sort of photos are published."

Synchro is fighting to be taken seriously, even among officials overseeing the sport. Aesthetics can overshadow the physical effort needed for athletes to synchronize their routines under water.

"To synchronize eight people is very hard. It's very difficult to synchronize two people in a couple at home — (so) imagine eight!" Tarres joked.

While nine gold medals are on the line at the worlds, including a pair of mixed events involving both men and women, the Olympics offers just two — and for women only.

"Sometimes people forget that diversity goes both ways. So we were a little disappointed because we thought it was a shoe-in," United States coach Chris Carver said of the failure to get men's synchro into the Olympics. "It was easy, it didn't add very many people to the games, it added a new dimension. But we haven't given up."

Carver has been working with Bill May, a trailblazer who has been forging the way for men's participation, since 1997. May was the first man to win a gold medal in synchro at the worlds (with Christina Jones in mixed duet) in Kazan, Russia in 2015.

"Just trying to get more men into the sport, more soloists at the world championships," May told the AP. "These are things that will increase the medal count and will increase the public awareness, and its acceptance."

May and Kanako Spendlove claimed bronze in the mixed duet technical on Monday, the first medal of the championships for the U.S., and they have the chance of another on Saturday in the mixed duet free competition.

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