Russia Synchronized for Success in Pool

APMedal favorite Anastasia Ermakova meeting the press in Red Square Tuesday.
BANGKOK, Thailand -- Although the spotlight at the pool will be fixed on swimmer Michael Phelps's quest for eight Olympic golds, Russia is shaping up for an impressive feat of its own in the often ridiculed synchronized swimming.

In a discipline characterized by smiles, nose clips and elaborate swimsuits, the Russians are chasing a clean sweep of gold medals for a third successive games in Beijing.

They have dominated synchro over the last eight years, with near-perfect performances at the Olympics and the last four world championships.

What makes Russia's supremacy most impressive is that they got off the mark at Olympic level only in Sydney in 2000, after failing to pick up medals in any of the previous four games.

Russia made wholesale changes between 2000 and 2004, and just two of the 10 winning swimmers kept their places.

The two Anastasias, Ermakova and Davydova, lead the Russian charge for a hat-trick of golds in the duet. Their biggest rival is likely to be Japan, runner up in both team and duet at the last two games and bronze medalist in 1996.

Japan may, however, be challenged by Spain, which showed its steady improvement at last year's worlds, picking up silver in four of the seven events.

Synchronized swimming has been contested at Olympic level since 1984. In 1992, the solo event was ditched in favor of the 10-swimmer team contest.

Judges award marks out of 10, based on execution, synchronization and difficulty. The 24 duet teams must perform a technical routine and a free routine to qualify for the final, where they must perform another free routine, with the highest points winning the gold.

The eight countries in the team competition -- Russia, Canada, Australia, China, Egypt, Spain, Japan and the United States -- have no preliminary rounds and perform both the free and technical routines.