By Daniel McLaughlin
Synchronized swimmers: no one smiles through adversity quite like them. Their peerless grins, not to mention their make- up, withstand not only lung-bursting routines but the jibes of an army of detractors who struggle to see the Olympic principles of "faster, higher, stronger" played out in their carefully choreographed gyrations.
As the Games return to their ancient home this year, synchronized swimming marks 20 years as an Olympic event, and the Russians hope to mark the anniversary with gold in Greece, and finally bury the controversy that dogged the team last time out.
To win their place in Athens, Anastasia Davydova and Anastasia Yermakova came through a fierce competition with domestic rivals whose travails at the 2000 Sydney Olympics briefly placed their sport under an unwelcome spotlight. Olga Brusnikina and Maria Kisseleva won gold in Sydney - Russia’s first medal in the sport - just weeks after Kisseleva tested positive for a banned substance. The swimming authorities accepted Kisseleva’s defense that she had taken it unwittingly, and gave her a controversially short one-month ban - allowing her to return in time for the Games.
But it was Davydova and Yermakova who won the Olympic qualifying competition this April, and they are now training at least eight hours a day to be in peak form for Athens. "We have breakfast at 7:30 and then go to the training hall, do four-and-a-half hours in the water, and then have lunch," Davydova says. "Then we may get two or two-and-a-half hours rest, and then finish off with another three-and-a-half hours of work."
The swimmers, who are both 21 years old and from Moscow, have competed together for six years. "We’ve been doing this since we were small. Our parents brought us down and showed us the event, we liked it and so we pursued it," Davydova says, emphasizing how Russian sport - as Soviet did before it - makes talented youngsters focus on one discipline at an early age, and gives them the best coaching as soon as possible.
The pair claimed world championship gold in Spain last year, beating the previous winners from Japan, and may take a psychological advantage into the pool in Athens. They fly to Greece in mid-August to make final preparations for their events - the duet on August 25 and the group event - involving eight swimmers - two days later. "It is so important to us both to be competing for our nation, for Russia - it will be such a proud moment," Davydova says. "And we hope that lots of Russians will be there, including our friends and family, to help us do our best."