Synchronized Swimmers Aim to Make a Splash with Music

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U.S. Olympic synchronized swimming duet of Mary Killman and Mariya Koroleva

Diehard fans of synchronized swimming remember the uproar at the 1996 summer Olympics in Atlanta. The French team had initially chosen music from the film "Schindler's List" for a Holocaust-themed routine. Wearing black bathing suits, the swimmers were to goose-step in German military style to the side of the pool before plunging in. John Williams's score was to play in the background. Before the team went ahead, France's sports minister stepped in and put the breaks on it.

At the London 2012 Olympics, musical selections are more likely to include medleys from Cirque du Soleil shows, songs by Michael Jackson or Elton John, classical ballet themes or film soundtracks. Teams consisting of two or eight swimmers are judged on their combination of grace, artistry and athleticism (if not an ability to stay underwater for ages). Loudspeakers in the pool at the Aquatics Center allow the competitors to hear their choice of music underwater.

The U.S. synchronized swimming team didn't qualify for the London Games but a duet consisting of Mary Killman and Mariya Koroleva will be competing.

Mayuko Fujiki is the coach of the U.S. team. She keeps a collection of music on hand and often matches specific pieces to individual swimmers' styles. "But officially, for world championships, the number-one priority for everybody is to represent your country," said Fujiki. "You don’t want to have music that has nothing to do with the United States."

The swimmers compete in both a technical routine and a free routine, the former consisting of compulsory elements in a set order. "So for the shorter technical routine it’s very important for everybody to make sure they swim perfectly synchronized and their elements fit with the music," said Fujiki, who coached Spain to two silver medals in 2008. "I wanted to make sure that they’re very good with the fast movements and have very American expressions. So we picked Aretha Franklin's 'Think.'"

For the free routine, the duet will include John Williams's Fanfare and Theme as well as Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" mashed up with percussion and chanting of the Olympic theme.

Still, classical music is not always ideally suited to the tempo and fluidity of synchronized swimming. Swimmers must count throughout, meaning an identifiable beat is critical. 

Classical music fans may look to the Russia and Ukraine teams, whose swimmers frequently come from a ballet tradition. "They look like they’re just dancing ballet in the water," said Fujiki (right). "You often see 9, 9, 9 or 10 in artistic marks for the Russians. Everybody values the art part and the athletic part differently." The Russians are heavily favored at the London Olympics.

Do teams ever show up to a competition with the same music? Fujiki recalled how in Sydney 2000, the Japanese team, which won the silver medal, and a duet from Russia, which took gold, used the same piece. And in the last year or two "everybody wanted to pick 'Alice in Wonderland,'" after the release of the 2010 Tim Burton film.

"You think twice because maybe other countries want to pick that too," said Fujiki. "You have to think what if other countries pick the same thing, then you're losing your originality at the meet." 

The synchronized swimming events take place from Aug. 5-10.