Ask most people about synchronized swimming and they're likely to picture something like the squad in the opening credits of the second Austin Powers movie—an endless line of identically-dressed women in nose plugs, doing perfectly-matched movements in a pool.
At the Olympic level, however, the sport is fiercely competitive, with swimmers in the duet and eight-woman categories vying for medals by executing expertly choreographed moves in perfect formation. But when synchronized swimming was first introduced as an official event at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games, it came in three varieties: duet, eight-woman—and, strangely, solo.
Putting the synch in synchronized
Technically, the synchronizing in "synchronized" swimming is to the music. But it's much harder to tell how good a job one person on their own is doing when compared to a team moving perfectly both to the music and with each other. With a solo performer, it kind of looks like either a swimmer who is also great at ballet or a ballet dancer who kicks ass at swimming. For a non-expert, unless someone starts visibly drowning, there’s essentially no way of knowing what does and doesn’t suck. Which perhaps explains why solo synchronized swimming's presence at the Olympics lasted for a mere three games, from 1984 to 1992.
Solo synchronized swimming still exists outside of the Olympics, however, as both technical and free solo events. Technical solos involve following a set routine, while the free solo event at the FINA World Championships is quite a sight to behold, as the athletes regularly—and elegantly—execute swan dives, inverted pirouettes, and various other aquatic gymnastics.
“Solos really allow individual athletes to shine and express themselves, which may not necessarily happen if they only swam in a team or duet,” Christina Marmet, former competitor and founder/editor-in-chief of Inside Synchro (a website that dubs itself "the ultimate website for everything artistic synchronized swimming") tells Mental Floss. “Solos are a big driving force behind the evolution of the sport. That’s where athletes can flourish in technique, difficulty, artistry, and create new movements, new ways of moving in the water. At the lower age-group levels and nationally, solos are very important. They are a really great way for younger swimmers to improve their individual skills, to get stronger technically, to be more confident, and to gain some visibility to move on up to better clubs or to the national team.”
A foot to the face
While solo synchronized swimming won’t be on the schedule of the Tokyo Olympics later this month, nor will any other synchronized swimming—though it's all a bit semantic. In 2017, "synchronized swimming" was rechristened as "artistic swimming" in order to bring it in line with how gymnastics is described.
The other thing you won’t see? Dudes. While the World Championships have male, female, and mixed events, Olympic artistic swimming is an all-female affair, as men are not allowed to compete. In 2017, FINA did push to have a mixed duet event added to the roster for the 2020 Olympics, particularly considering its popularity in Japan, but it didn't happen. This is something Marmet hopes will change at some point, along with the general perception people have of the sport.
“One big challenge for the sport in general is to be taken seriously,” Marmet says. “People make fun of the sport itself, of solos, of the looks, and don't realize how difficult it is or how much work goes into it. Sure, we sometimes shoot ourselves in the foot with over-the-top makeup, headpieces or swimsuits. But it’s hard. Competitors never touch the bottom of the pool, and train eight hours a day every day in the water and on land.”
It is hard. Something you may well see are concussions. Artistic swimming, particularly in large teams, is extremely dangerous—with lots of fast-moving feet colliding with slower-moving heads. In 2016, Myriam Glez—then-chief executive of USA Synchro, the sport’s American organizing body, and a two-time Olympian—told The New York Times that being concussed at some point was all but guaranteed, saying, “I would say 100 percent of my athletes will get a concussion at some point. It might be minor, might be more serious, but at some point or another, they will get hit.”
Solo synchro might sound a bit silly to some, but at least it lessens the likelihood of a foot to the face.