The origins of artistic swimming came about from life-saving and swimming techniques. It expanded as a sport when ornamental swimming and theatrical water ballets were popularised at the end of the 19th century.
Swimmers were originally all male and carried out round dances surrounded with garlands and lanterns.
The first artistic swimming competitions took place in Berlin in 1891 and London in 1892. Contests were originally solely for men but it was soon recognised that artistic swimming was better fitted to women who were overall more buoyant, in particular in the legs. The major influence on pushing synchronised swimming to be recognised as a sport came from Canada. In 1934, the Quebec provincial championship for figure and stroke competition was held in Montreal and leading Canadian diver Margaret Sellers won the first official national championship in performing figures and strokes.
Artistic swimming also gained popularity as a sport in American colleges. For example, Katherine Curtis set up a water ballet club at the University of Chicago in 1923 where she took a group of 60 swimmers, labelled “The Modern Mermaids”, to participate at the 1934 World Fair in Chicago. This is when the term “synchronised swimming” was first addressed to a wide audience and the phrase caught on. FINA renamed the sport from "synchronized swimming" to "artistic swimming" in 2017.
Artistic swimming became increasingly technical and athletic throughout the 20th century as music began to support acts. Artistic swimming was introduced into the Olympics as a demonstration sport from 1952 and 1968. Its first official global scale competition was undertaken in the Pan-American Games in Mexico in 1955 where there were solo, duel and team events in which the US triumphed in all. Artistic swimming has been featuring in the FINA World Championships from the very first one in Belgrade in 1973 and it finally made its debut as an Olympic sport in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games.