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Olympic beauty: How synchronized swimmers go for the gold (glitter)

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.”

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.

Clive Rose / Getty Images Europe
LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 20: Mary Killman and Mariya Koroleva of USA compete in the Duet Free routine during the FINA Olympic Games Synchronised Swimming Qualification event at the London Aquatics Centre on April 20, 2012 in London, England. (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)

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.

“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.

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.”

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