The 36-sport countdown continues with canoeing and synchronised swimming

Time to face the music in unison

Attention to detail plays a vital role for the synchronised swimming team The 36-sport countdown continues with canoeing and synchronised swimming

SYNCHRONISED swimmers make perfection seem so easy, as they flip, twist and turn in effortless unison.

At the end of the training session, the nose clip and goggles are quickly removed and their hair is freed from tight swimming caps.

Then the glasses go on.

Twelve synchronised swimmers shed their pool personas to resume ordinary lives as very hungry teenagers eager for lunch.

Perfection, however, is a lot harder than they make it seem.

For seven hours each day, they train to match one another or risk sticking out, but each swimmer naturally dances to the music a little differently.

"Different people have different interpretations of the music, so even if you have counts - some people count the music differently," explained Debbie Soh, 17, who forms Singapore's second duet pair with Natalie Chen.

In the hours spent in the pool every morning and evening this past month, the swimmers search for that elusive ideal.

"You have to keep doing it, keep repeating it - you repeat to improve," said Crystal Yap, 18.

Even outside the pool, the differences have to bleed away.

Until their last team combination performance on June 4, the team will be in close contact.

"We sleep together, eat together - it can help us be in sync," said national coach Maryna Tsimashenka, a Belarusian who coached the country's 2008 Olympic team.

No two people can agree on what makes a flawless performance. Yet there are small things that clearly matter to all, like how the swimmers do their hair.

"If it isn't done properly, there will be disturbance when we spin underwater. The judges might mark us down," said Debbie.

Hair and make-up are practically a pre-performance ritual; there are precise steps to follow.

The hair is dampened, tied and bunned. Hot water and gelatine powder are mixed into a smooth paste and spread across the hair while it is still hot. It has to dry a little before the headpiece goes on, and is pinned into place.

While they wait, the make-up is applied in the order Tsimashenka shows them. It easily takes over an hour to look the part.

More often or not, synchronised swimmers dispute one another's preferred ideal.

"To us, we're doing (the routine) the right way. But the coach may say that we are not," said Crystal. "Or the judge may disagree with what the coach choreographs."

Frustration bubbles up, but they shrug it off. Imperfection does not lie with the individual.

"We watch the videos of us (performing) and criticise the actions together - we work towards it together to make it a better routine," said Crystal.

Flawlessness, however, is not a defined, quantifiable point.

"There is no limit. Every training, we just have to aim to be better than what we were before," said captain Stephanie Chen, 19.

To make incremental steps towards perfection is to move a digit closer to 100. Each routine is scored on a total of 100 points and winning the SEA Games calls for approximately 75 points. That is about 20 points away from winning the Olympics.

Nevertheless, the Singapore team have come a long way since Stephanie and Crystal first broke the psychological barrier of 70 points four years ago to win two silvers in the duet event at the 2011 SEA Games in Indonesia.

Defending champions Malaysia may have swept all seven golds when synchronised swimming was contested in 2001 and 2011, but results at recent competitions have given Singapore hope.

They won four golds at the Southeast Asian Swimming Championships last year. Then, at the French Open in March this year, Stephanie and Crystal came 18th in the duet event, ahead of Malaysia (20th).

At the Japan Open this month, they came 11th in the team event, ahead of Malaysia (19th) and Indonesia (21st). The team free combination event also saw them come in ninth, ahead of Malaysia (14th).

Performing for a mid-70 score is now a familiar, enjoyable experience. And the team are aiming to clinch Singapore's first gold in this sport at the SEA Games.

"They're ready for a perfect performance," said Tsimashenka.

gohruiqi@sph.com.sg


Synchronised swimming

GOLD MEDALS ON OFFER: 3

This year's SEA Games will be a showdown between reigning champions Malaysia and up-and-coming Singapore. Malaysia swept all seven golds offered in 2001 and 2011, but Singapore were champions at the 2013 South-east Asian Swimming Championships.

WATCH OUT FOR: Singapore

Quietly, the Singapore synchronised swimmers have made huge gains since the sport was last offered at the SEA Games in 2011. With recent victories at the French and Japan Open as well as the South-east Asian Swimming Championships, the team are poised to land Singapore its first synchronised swimming gold.

TEAM SINGAPORE

  • Stephanie Chen
  • Crystal Yap
  • Natalie Chen
  • Debbie Soh
  • Lee Mei Shuang
  • Geraldine Chew
  • Gwyneth Goh
  • Shona Lim
  • Miya Yong
  • Tay Aik Fen
  • Carolyn Rayna Buckle
  • Nadine Khor