Film critic Peter Bradshaw reviews the GB Olympics synchronised swimming team

Do their formations have a cinematic quality? Or is it more like aquatic ballet?
Peter Bradshaw watches GB’s synchronised swimming team from the high diving board.
Peter Bradshaw watches GB’s synchronised swimming team from the high diving board. Photograph: Sarah Lee for the
Peter Bradshaw watches GB’s synchronised swimming team from the high diving board. Photograph: Sarah Lee for the
Peter Bradshaw
Sun 15 Jul 2012 14.05 EDT

It's 1.30pm at the Aldershot Garrison sports centre, a military facility whose swimming pool is the training centre for Great Britain's synchronised swimming team – or "synchro", as I have learned to say.

I am perched on the high diving board, wearing a heavy dark suit in the clammy humidity, to appreciate fully the fantastic Busby Berkeley Hollywood effect laid on for me: a superbly executed turning-circle of eight interlocking synchro stars, all beaming. An octo-wheel of synchro.

I teeter further and further over to watch. It is mesmeric. I am getting the woozy sense that they are staying still, and the diving board is moving … I shuffle back, narrowly avoiding the spectacle of a middle-aged bloke in a suit plunging into the circle of swimmers with a colossal splash.

Synchronised swimming is a very cinematic sport. It was popularised – perhaps in some sense invented – by the competitive swimmer-turned-Hollywood star, Esther Williams. Her dreamily serene aqua-ballet sequences captivated the US in movies such as Million Dollar Mermaid (1952). Synchro has Williams's Hollywood glamour in its DNA – along with a Soviet sense of teamwork and rehearsed display. I mention to the GB team's high-performance manager, Adele Carlsen, that IMF chief Christine Lagarde was a synchronised swimmer. "She only competed at a junior level," Carlsen smiles.

These are exciting times for British synchro. A team is competing in the Olympics for the first time, although Great Britain has been entering solo and duet competitors since the LA Games of 1984, when synchronised swimming was first recognised as an Olympic sport. The current thinking is that Britain could place sixth this year (defending champions Russia are favourites to take gold duet and team events), and go for medals glory in Rio in 2016.

After half an hour watching the team train under the formidable direction of their Italian coach, Lolli Montico – who gives amplified orders from poolside using a headset mic – I have moved straight from ignorance to fandom. The high concept of their freestyle routine is a Peter Pan theme with music from Spielberg's film Hook, choreographed by French former Cirque du Soleil performer Stephan Miermont.

The swimmers drift out into a deceptively loose configuration, then effortlessly snap back into sharp positions. With incredible strength and focus, they present an almost evolutionary drama, rising smoothly out of the water, using the "eggbeater" kick with the legs, or upside-down, their legs will surreally spike, scissoring and closing, while they use the "sculling" motion with the hands. All the time, they create a dreamy tidal rhythm in the water, like a fantastically slow, irregular heartbeat.

The swimmers, aged 18 to 24, look very young but their concentration and focus make the rest of us look babyish. Somehow, the most compelling part of their practice comes when they swim as one to the side, to drink from water bottles and listen solemnly to the coach, before turning round and resuming.

Katie Clark, a calm, intelligent 18-year-old who is taking a year out from her A-levels (applied science, English, human biology) to train for the London games, has been into synchro since the age of seven, and training for this six days a week since 2009. So is synchro an art form, like ballet? "It is the same in the creative aspect, but you've so many things to think about. You also have to hold your breath, and you're moving at about a million miles per hour. You have to make it look so easy and so artistic."

At this stage, I uneasily remember the French film Water Lilies, by Céline Sciamma, the angst-ridden story of three 15-year-old friends that presents synchronised swimming as riven with emotional tensions. What is it like, working so intensely with seven other young women? "They're like sisters. We normally get on really well. There are times when we have little disputes between us, but that's only because we want to all do our best; we all have a lot of passion."

Clark leaves for lunch; the afternoon is another two and a half hours of work. I could watch it all day. My only suggestion is that synchro should be presented in a giant tank whose wall would rise up like a screen, so the judges can see the underwater half.

Katie Clark's cultural life

Film: Dear John, directed by Lasse Hallström

Book: The Twilight Saga, by Stephenie Meyer

Band: Muse

• This article was amended on 17 January 2012. The original used the spelling Adele Carson. This has been corrected.

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