Simon Denyer

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author. Former bureau chief with The Washington Post and Reuters.

Aug 7, 2021
Published on: Washington Post
1 min read

TOKYO — As Tokyo Aquatics Centre emptied Saturday after its last event of the Olympic Games, the strains of Abba’s “Dancing Queen” played over the sound system.

It was a fitting tribute to the greatest underwater dancing queen, Russian artistic swimmer Svetlana Romashina, who at her fourth Olympics won her seventh gold medal, this one in the eight-woman team event. It was her second gold medal of these Games; she also claimed the duet crown.

Romashina took time off after the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games to have a daughter, and she said it’s now time to be with her family.

“I was crying on duet and I was crying on team, because it was a long way back; it was a very difficult way,” she said. I’m very happy that now, with these two medals, I will return home to my daughter, and of course, I understand that I will cry when I see her.”

Romashina said Tokyo would be her last Games as an athlete but that she might return one day as a coach. At 31 years old and a 21-time world champion, she said it’s time to make way for a younger generation.

“I just want to be with my family now. I want to have my second baby,” she said. “It was very difficult to be a mother and an athlete at one moment.”

Her husband and her 3-year-old daughter were watching at home on television, even if it’s sometimes tough to work out who is who in the flurry of legs, arms and identically coiffured bobbing heads that is artistic swimming.

“I told her to try to find me in team because, of course, it’s very difficult to find me on TV,” she said. “ ‘Where is Mother?’ ‘Oh, I don’t know.’ Of course, my husband tried to show her.”

Artistic swimming, which used to be known as synchronized swimming, looks almost impossible to contemplate, let alone perform.

It’s a mixture of swimming, diving, acrobatics and ballet; performed mostly underwater, often upside down, in perfect unison; while wearing clips across your nose. When you do come up for air, a constant smile must adorn your face. It demands complete mastery of your body, of your position in the water, of your teammates’ positions and actions, of rhythm, strength and poise.

There are countless positions that have to be mastered: the Ballet Leg, the Fishtail, the Front Pike, the Knight, the Dolphin and the Catalina Reverse Rotation. Then there are the moves: the Flamingo Twirl, the Porpoise Spin, the Swan, the Albatross, the Butterfly, the Heron and the Manta Ray. Not forgetting of course, the Eiffel Tower Twist Spin and the Helicopter.

For the uninitiated, it’s a twirling, churning forest of legs and feet; of women suddenly appearing out of the water to perform somersaults and then disappearing again; of upside-down competitors dancing under the surface as their legs swirl around one another above it, all set to dramatic music.

It’s as though the Hindu goddess Durga transformed herself into a mermaid, or Simone Biles coached the world’s smartest octopus.

“In my country, people usually say that synchronized swimming is too easy,” Romashina said. “We don’t like these words because only we understand how difficult it is, how many hours we train.”

“In my country, also, our press usually says: ‘Oh, synchro will also get the gold,’ ” she said. “No! We don’t like [being taken for granted]. … We work for 10 hours a day, just in the water: five hours in the morning and five hours in the evening. And, of course, it’s very difficult,” she said.

“At the Olympic Games anything can happen. So we just try to do our job in the best way, then to get our scores, and only then to think about our win, not before, because it’s not the right way.”

Her daughter, she said, had told her she also wants to be a synchronized swimmer but is also keen on ballet and figure skating.

“I don’t want her to be a synchronized swimmer because maybe I can see that it would be difficult to be after me, because everyone will compare us,” Romashina said. “I just want to choose her way. Maybe it will not be professional sport, I don’t know. It must be her way.”