Eyes wide open, synchronized swimmers dazzle without goggles
By Alexandra Ulmer
RIO DE JANEIRO - Those too sensitive to even squint underwater are amazed at Olympic synchronized swimmers, who do upside-down splits and soar out of the pool with wide-open, dolled-up eyes staring straight at judges.
Synchronized swimmers do use goggles in training, but they are banned in competitions, where athletes dazzle with sparkly costumes, balletic underwater moves and a seemingly instinctive connection with their partners.
"The artistic side is how we portray the emotion of the music, and the eyes are a very powerful connection," said Britain's Olivia Federici, 26, after completing her technical routine with partner Katie Clark on Monday.
"We really want to be looking right at the judges to grab them," Federici, who began swimming at the age of two, told Reuters by the side of the Rio 2016 outdoor pool.
Synchronized swimmers told Reuters they progressively shed their goggles as competitions approach, hoping their muscle memory and gradual tolerance to chlorine compensate for blurry vision.
Of course, ditching goggles is tricky for synchronised swimmers who have less-than-perfect vision. But Canada's Jacqueline Simoneau, 19, who is nearsighted, has a trick to put her contact lenses on before competition.
"I fill goggles with water, and then I put them on my eyes, and I blink a little," Quebec-born Simoneau said after competing with partner Karine Thomas.
"I don't know how, but it works!," she giggled, confirming she still had both lenses in after her routine at the Maria Lenk Aquatics Centre.
The lack of goggles is emblematic of synchronized swimming's rigour.
Athletes train as many as 10 hours per day to execute routines that blend swim moves like the backstroke with choreographed routines that include lifts and backflips - all without ever touching the bottom of the pool.
Russian duets and teams have dominated the discipline for years.
For Natalia Ishchenko and Svetlana Romashina, who have a stranglehold on the discipline and are the gold favorites in Rio, swimming without goggles is second nature.
"It's so normal that its not a problem," Russia's Romashina told Reuters under the Rio sun.
Still, some swimmers say the restriction should be lifted.
"I wouldn't mind if there was an option," said Britain's Clark, her hair caked under layers of thick gel to keep buns in place during the athletic routines.
Of course, swimmers still compete with nose clips - and everyone agrees those should not go anywhere.
"If we don't have clips, we will be at the bottom of the pool," quipped Greece's Evangelia Papazoglou.
Reporting by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Bill Rigby