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Image: Mary Killman, left, and Mariya Koroleva
Toby Melville  /  Reuters
Mary Killman, left, and Mariya Koroleva, seen here at the Olympic qualifiers, apply layer after layer of waterproof makeup to make sure that the judges can see their expressions during their performances.
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updated 5/31/2012 3:56:11 PM ET 2012-05-31T19:56:11

Mary Killman and Mariya Koroleva spend up to eight hours a day practicing their synchronized swimming duet for the Olympic Games this summer. By the time they dive into the pool in London, they will have been preparing for the big day for more than a year. Each detail will need to be timed perfectly — the lifts, the rockets, the splits. But on the day itself, there is one critical element of their routine that will capture a good portion of their attention: the makeup.

It might not look that way, but synchronized swimming is one of the most physically demanding sports at the Olympics. Some swimmers liken it to running a mile while holding your breath. In that context, worrying about makeup can seem trivial. And yet, a matching and polished look not only gets the swimmers in the mood, it also helps the competitors stand out to the judges.

“So much of the sport is based on your performance and dependent on how you look and present yourself,” says Koroleva, 22, of California. “If we didn’t wear makeup then the judges wouldn’t be able to see our faces. The makeup really does add to the performance and add to the sport as a whole.”

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With little money in the sport, the U.S. team doesn’t exactly have the money to pay a makeup artist for each competition. Getting the right look is up to the swimmers who not only apply their own makeup but also come up with the design themselves. Earlier this year, Killman met with a makeup artist to put together several looks. She took photos and now the pair do their best to copy those styles before each competition.

To last for a whole performance — equal to at least four laps up and down the Olympic size pool — syncho swimmer’s makeup has to be strong enough to withstand a tough beating underwater.

What brands have that much staying power? Most of them, say the swimmers, with the one heavy caveat — it’s got to be waterproof.

To get the right look, Killman and Koroleva first apply a layer of ChapStick or other primer on their eyes to help the eye shadow stay on. They then apply layer after layer of shadow, caking it on so that it’s bright and doesn’t get washed after one dunk in the pool. Then come the layers of eyeliner and mascara — the more the better — to make their features stand out.

Image: Mary Killman and Mariya Koroleva
Clive Rose  /  Getty Images
Mary Killman, bottom, and Mariya Koroleva, seen here at the Olympic synchronized swimming qualifiers in April, got tips from a makeup artist on how to best apply their makeup and match it to their routines.

The brand Killman likes best? MAC, for its bright range of colors and choices. Koroleva is more partial to Cover Girl. Make Up For Ever is one of the only brands marketing directly to this niche customer base with its Aqua line. Developed specially for underwater performers, the Aqua products are waterproof and smudge-proof. The line was so popular that it’s now crossed over with regular women are buying it too.

'Almost natural'
Over the years, as routines have become faster and more physically demanding, synchro makeup has become more extreme. When the sport was in its infancy, blue and white eye shadow with a bit of black eyeliner and red lipstick was the standard. Over the years, that’s changed, and competitors now wear makeup to match their costumes and portray whatever theme they are swimming about.

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“Up close their makeup can seem extreme, but from further away it looks almost natural,” says Cheryl Furjanic, who directed the documentary “Sync or Swim” about the 2004 U.S. Olympic team. “It’s almost like on-camera makeup for broadcasting; it’s meant for TV, not for everyday on the street.”

All this prep doesn't come cheap: The average swimmer will go through 10 tubes of lipstick in her career, along with a bottle of suncreen a week, and a new swimsuit every month, says Furjanic.

At the Games in London, Killman and Koroleva, the team’s duet swimmers, will perform their technical routines to Aretha Franklin’s “Think,” wearing a red, gold and black bathing suit and makeup to match. The larger U.S. synchro team didn’t qualify for the Games, and Killman and Koroleva will be the only U.S. synchro swimmers in London.

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While some swimmers lament the reputation that the makeup gives to the sport, others give it credit for drawing in young girls who otherwise may not be interested.

“This is truly a girls sport and the ones that like makeup and sparkly costumes tend to migrate to synchro,” says Jen MacHatt, coach of the Freedom Valley YMCA synchro team in Pennsylvania. “I always tell the girls I coach that makeup is the last thing they need to think about when preparing for a meet. But you can see that once they put that makeup on at a competition it changes their mindset, they realize it's not just practice and it can bring their performance to a new level.”

Photos: Olympic venues

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  1. Welcoming the world

    Olympic rings have been mowed into the grass by shire horses at Richmond Park in London. The rings are visible on the flight path to London Heathrow International Airport, ready to welcome athletes and visitors to the London 2012 Games.

    The Games will take place July 27-Aug. 12, 2012. (LOCOG via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Getting around

    A cable car is seen June 28 across the River Thames in London. The cable car will make the half-mile crossing between Greenwich and the Royal Docks, allowing visitors to take in the views of Olympic Park, the Canary Wharf financial center and the Thames Barrier. Each of the 34 cars holds 10 people. Travelers can purchase one-way or round-trip tickets, with a one-way ticket costing 3.20 pounds (about $5 US). (Lefteris Pitarakis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Final countdown

    Work continues July 3 on the entry routes to the Olympic Stadium in London. The stadium will host several events during the 2012 Games. (Luke Macgregor / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Olympic Park

    A July 12 aerial view of the Olympic Park in Stratford, one of the venues for the 2012 London Summer Olympic Games. (David Goddard / Getty Images Contributor) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Twisty tower

    The ArcelorMittal Orbit is seen May 11 in the London 2012 Olympic Park. The 375-foot observation tower is the tallest in England and will remain a permanent fixture in the city long after the Games end. (Ki Price / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Shopping, anyone?

    Shoppers are seen at the Westfield Stratford City mall in east London. The 1.75 billion British pounds ($2.75 billion U.S.) mall includes a 24-hour casino, 14 bowling lanes, 70 restaurants and 250 shops between the main public transit hub and the main entry point to the Olympic Park. An estimated 75 percent of fans will have to walk through the mall and its temptations to reach the venues for showcase events like gymnastics, swimming, basketball and track. (Lefteris Pitarakis / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Shooting events

    A steward stands outside the Royal Artillery Barracks in Woolwich, London, on April 20. The OIympic shooting events will be held at this venue. (Matt Dunham / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Carrying the torch

    Torchbearer Zachary Franklin carries the Olympic flame on a raft down the Lee Valley White Water Centre on July 7 in Waltham Cross, England. The 70-day relay leading up on the Olympic Games involves 8,000 torchbearers covering 8,000 miles. (Locog / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Tennis, anyone?

    Andy Murray of Great Britain serves during a semifinal men's tennis match July 6 against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga of France on day 11 of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club in London. The 2012 Summer Olympics tennis competition will be held in the venue. (Paul Gilham / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Olympic Stadium

    This picture taken with a fisheye lens May 5 shows a general view of the British Universities and Colleges Sport Athletics Championship at Olympic Stadium in London. The 80,000-seat stadium will host the opening and closing ceremonies during the 2012 Games. (Matt Dunham / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Velodrome

    The Velodrome in east London can seat 6,000 spectators and will host the cycling events at the 2012 Summer Games. A glass wall around the venue's perimeter also gives visitors a 360-degree view of Olympic Park. (Ben Stansall / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Olympic Park

    The London Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games released the new aerial image dated Dec. 5 showing the transformation of the Olympic Park.

    London will host the 2012 Olympic Games taking place from 27 July-12 August 2012 and Paralympic Games 29 August - 9 September 2012. (Anthony Charlton / Olympic Delivery Authority via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Home sweet home

    An aerial view of the Athletes' Village in the London 2012 Olympic Park on April 16. (Anthony Charlton / London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. View from above

    An aerial view of the Olympic Stadium, Aquatics Centre and Water Polo Arena in the London 2012 Olympic Park on April 16. (Anthony Charlton / LOCOG via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Spin your wheels

    Exterior view of the Velodrome within the Olympic Park in London, England, on Feb. 19. The velodrome will host the track cycling events at the 2012 Olympic Games. (Gerry Penny / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Eyes on the prize

    An aerial view of the Aquatics Centre and the Water Polo Arena in the London 2012 Olympic Park on April 16. (Anthony Charlton / LOCOG via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Transformation

    An aerial view of Olympic Park taken on April 4, 2008, (bottom) and Dec. 21, 2011, (top) show the Aquatics Centre (front), Water Polo Arena, right, and the Olympic Stadium, back, in London and the site when construction began. (Anthony Charlton / Olympic Delivery Authority via EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Olympic Stadium and Orbit Tower

    The Olympic stadium and Orbit Tower of the London 2012 Olympic games in Stratford, east London, seen on Jan. 12, 2012. (Facundo Arrizabalaga / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Velodrome

    A view of the Velodrome from the Parklands area in the Olympic Park in London on April 8, 2011. (Anthony Charlton / Olympic Delivery Authority via EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Olympic Stadium

    The Olympic Stadium is seen from Hackney in London on Nov. 27, 2011. (Eddie Keogh / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Beach volleyball venue

    People walk across the Horseguards Parade on Nov. 29, 2011, in London, which will host the beach volleyball event for the London 2012 Olympic Games. (Andy Rain / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Rising to the occasion

    Hot air balloons rise into the early morning sky July 25, 2011, over London. Seven balloons took part in the flight over London as part of a collaboration between the London Sky Orchestra project, the 30th anniversary of the London International Festival of Theatre, and the Greater London Authority, which is marking a year to go before the 2012 Olympic Games. (Andrew Winning / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Mascots

    Olympic mascot Wenlock, left, and Paralympic mascot Mandeville pose for photographs May 19, 2010, at a school in London. The backstory of the two mascots is that they were created from the last drops of steel left over from the construction of the final support girder for the Olympic Stadium. (Matt Dunham / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Bull’s eye

    An aerial view of Lord's Cricket Ground, which will host archery events during the London 2012 Olympic Games. (Tom Shaw / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Hoop dreams

    An interior view of the London 2012 Basketball Arena. Construction on the 12,000-seat basketball arena for 2012 Olympics in London has been completed, just 15 months after building began. The stadium became the fourth venue at Olympic Park to be finished, on budget and in time for the first test event to be held at the site in August. (Dave Tully / ODA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. The Dome

    An aerial view of the North Greenwich Arena, also known as The Dome, which will host artistic gymnastics, trampoline, basketball and wheelchair basketball events during the 2012 Olympics in London. (Tom Shaw / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Manmade whitewater

    An aerial view of the Lee Valley White Water Centre, which will host the canoe slalom events during the London Olympics. (Tom Shaw / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. In the arena

    Nina Ligon represents Thailand during an equestrian competition at Greenwich Park on July 4 in London. The equestrian eventing was one of the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games’ test events prior to 2012. (Olivia Harris / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Goal!

    An aerial view of Wembley Stadium, which will host soccer events during the 2012 Games. (Tom Shaw / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Courtside seats

    An interior view of the Handball Arena at London’s Olympic Park. The Handball Arena became the third venue at the Olympic Park to be completed. (David Poultney - Locog Handout / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Tennis, anyone?

    An aerial view of Wimbledon, which will host the tennis events during the 2012 Olympic Games. (Tom Shaw / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. The Mall

    An aerial view of The Mall, which will host the marathon, race walk and cycling events at the 2012 Games. (Tom Shaw / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Torch unveiled

    Sebastian Coe, chairman of the London 2012 Olympic Organising Committee, poses for pictures with the newly unveiled 2012 London Olympic Torch on June 8 in London. Runners will use the torch to carry the Olympic flame 8,000 miles around Britain to the opening ceremony. (Geoff Caddick / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image:
    LOCOG via AP
    Above: Slideshow (33) Venues for 2012 London Olympic Games - Olympic venues
  2. Image: -
    Carl Court / AFP - Getty Images
    Slideshow (34) Venues for 2012 London Olympic Games - London calling

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