RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
At the Olympics today, it's the final in synchronized swimming duet - that's the two-person event. Synchronized swimming is one of those Olympic events that often inspires eye-rolling and mockery. You might remember the classic 1984 "Saturday Night Live" parody of the sport. But behind the glitter, the makeup and the over-the-top smiles, there is a tough world. From Rio, NPR's Tom Goldman reports.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Duet number 20, representing the United States of America.
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Cheering).
TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Mariya Koroleva and Anita Alvarez close behind stride to the edge of a large swimming pool - in unison, of course. Their swim suits are spangly, their eye makeup heavy. They wear nose clips. Koroleva and Alvarez stop and do a series of choreographed poses on the pool deck. The old me would've laughed. The new, synchro-sensitive me wishes them a silent good luck as they dive in.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GOLDMAN: Koroleva and Alvarez are the one U.S. pair in the synchronized swimming event at the Olympic Park. This technical routine yesterday would determine if they qualify for today's finals and whether a lot of work and pain pays off.
LOLLI MONTICO: Three, two, one.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MONTICO: Sorry, I don't know why.
GOLDMAN: Back in June, the pair was working with head coach Lolli Montico on the same routine. When I showed up at their training site in Moraga, Calif., Koroleva and Alvarez already had been in the water three and a half hours, with one hour to go.
MONTICO: Chin - no, I just said chin up, and I didn't see it. Chin up.
GOLDMAN: Montico from Italy watched every move. Synchro is about every move. Precision is key to impress judges, but doing things just right keeps the performances safe as well. Loose elbows and knees can be dangerous. There are no hard statistics, but according to a recent New York Times article USA Synchro, the sport's governing body in this country, put in place a new plan for dealing with concussions. The article quotes the chief executive of USA Synchro as saying, I would say 100 percent of my athletes will get a concussion at some point. Mariya Koroleva got one late last year when Alvarez thwhacked her during practice. Koroleva's had several. She says it's the risk of close-quarter routines and adds, they're getting closer.
MARIYA KOROLEVA: 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. Like, that's, like, kind of an evolution of the sport. And I think now, like, yeah, there are a lot more concussions and injury - like, impact injuries happening because you're starting to swim so much closer together.
GOLDMAN: Koroleva, who competed in the 2012 Olympics, says concussions often go unreported because there's a culture of suck it up. If it's not bleeding, it's not injured. Yes, we're talking about synchronized swimming, not the NFL. Chronic overuse injuries are most prevalent, especially with hips and shoulders. Twenty-six-year-old Koroleva has had hip and back surgery from all her synchro work. Injuries, eight-hour training days six days a week in the pool, lifting weights, doing ballet and pilates - go ahead and laugh, says Koroleva. She and Alvarez will argue that synchronized swimming is the hardest sport in the world.
KOROLEVA: I mean, if you think gymnastics is hard, well, try doing it in the water first of all on an unstable surface, without breathing...
GOLDMAN: ...And with a smile on your face, which brings us back to yesterday.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, APPLAUSE)
GOLDMAN: Koroleva and Alvarez performed well and moved into ninth place in the standings, and they qualified for today's final. As they hugged their coach after the routine, the smiles they often forced through the pain of a performance, those were real. Tom Goldman, NPR News, Rio de Janeiro.