Synchronized swimming came in fairly low in our rankings of every Olympic medal event. I know as much about it as I do about horse sports, which is to say, not much. It seems like a nice chill activity for the elderly, those who want to dance in the water, or perhaps athletes with joint problems who want a low-impact sport. However, it’s apparently a lot more hardcore than I assumed.
NPR spoke with the United States synchro team today, in advance of the duet finals. They outlined a full-contact sport with intrinsic concussion risk that’s far from the effete water ballet most see when they come across the sport every four years. Mariya Koroleva said that she’d suffered several concussions in the pool, and chalked it up to ever tighter routines:
“I mean, if you look at videos from like the 2004 Olympics, even the 2008 Olympics, you see that the patterns just get smaller and smaller — that’s kind of an evolution of the sport,” Koroleva says. “And I think now, yeah, there are a lot more concussions and impact injuries happening because you’re starting to swim so much closer together.”
USA Synchro’s chief told the New York Times last month that “100 percent of my athletes will get a concussion at some point.” Koroleva said that swimmers will even mask injuries and try to swim through them:
Koroleva, who competed in the 2012 Olympics, says concussions often go unreported because there’s a culture of “suck it up.” If someone is not bleeding, she is not injured — and yes, this is synchronized swimming, not the NFL.
That’s not what I was expecting for a sport that earns as many headlines in the mainstream press for its makeup as the actual results. This aligns with what former Olympian Bridget Finn told us in 2012, when asked about how many times she’d been kicked in the face:
Funny you should ask. I’m sure it was countless times. What I remember is being kicked in the face by Bill May, the male synchro swimmer on my club team. In fact, I broke my nose in practice while working on an intricate lift. I was thrown in the air and didn’t rotate enough, which forced to land face first into the back of my teammate’s head. It wasn’t pretty.