Learn more about Artistic Swimming

So, you want to learn about artistic swimming. Well, can you imagine running for up to five minutes while performing acrobatics, holding your breath, looking graceful, and having to keep in time to the music? No? That’s artistic swimming!

Artistic swimming routines are essentially athletic movements performed in water and choreographed to music.

Facts About Artistic Swimming

  1. The sport used to be known as ‘water ballet’
  2. It is incredibly strenuous and skillful. A test on all the Olympic sports before the London 2012 Olympic Games found that artistic swimmers ranked second only to long distance runners in aerobic capacity!
  3. Competitors need strength and flexibility to perform twists and lifts as well as rhythm and flair to synchronise and interpret the music, which they listen to through underwater speakers.
  4. Swimmers commonly hold their breath underwater for around a minute, but sometimes between two and three minutes.
  5. Routines can be anything from two and a half minutes to five minutes long, depending on whether they perform alone or part of a team, but one rule applies to all routines
  6. No athletes are permitted to touch the bottom of the pool during a routine, even when lifting one another.


There are four main categories of artistic swimming competition:

  • Solos – where an individual swimmer will synchronise with the music.
  • Duets – where a swimmer co-ordinates with their partner and in time to the music.
  • Teams – where the swimmer co-ordinates with up to seven other athletes and in time to the music.
  • Combination – a team routine where up to ten swimmers perform in one continuous routine but during the routine there will be segments where different numbers of swimmers will perform.

Teams normally contain eight swimmers, but the minimum number for a team is four. Teams lose marks for every swimmer they have under the full complement because it is easier to synchronise the fewer people there are in a routine.

Currently only the duet and team competitions are held at the Olympic Games although the solo competition featured in 1984, 1988 and 1992.


In most senior competitions, swimmers perform two routines for the judges, one technical and one free.

The technical routine involves performing predetermined elements that must be executed in a specific order. The free routine has no requirements so the swimmers can be ‘free’ in how creative they get with the movements and their choreography.

While judging routines is inevitably subjective, there are strict guidelines for the judges to consider.

Technical routines receives scores for:

  • Execution – this is predominantly based on the performance of the required elements, which all athletes performing the routine must do.
  • Overall Impression – this score is based on the routine choreography (the variety and creativity of the routine and the pool coverage), synchronisation, difficulty and presentation.

Free routines receives scores for:

  • Technical Merit – this is a combination of scores inputted for three sub-categories; execution of the elements, synchronisation and difficulty of the routine.
  • Artistic Impression – again, this is a combination of three scores for choreography, interpretation of the music and presentation.

There are also competitions called ‘figures’ for junior swimmers where they perform set movements to the judges. There is no music and this is simply a case of how well the individual performs the movements.


One of the unique and most recognisable things about artistic swimming is the athletes’ costumes, make-up and presentation.

Artistic swimmers will often wear elaborate costumes which, while they do not count towards any of the scoring, should complement the music selection and be in good moral taste.

Presentation marks are affected by swimmers’ facial expressions in the water so they will wait waterproof make-up to ensure their features can be seen clearly throughout, and gelatin in their hair to ensure it stays slicked back and out of the way!

Athletes aren’t allowed to wear goggles – this would mask their facial expressions further – but they are permitted nose clips to aid them with the underwater aspects of the routine.

Another distinctive aspect of artistic swimming is the deck work. Swimmers have ten seconds on poolside before they enter the water and while their walk on to the pool and the position they take do not count towards a score, they do set the tone for the routine and judges will already be forming their impression from it.