WALNUT CREEK, CALIF. — When the artistic swimming team competition begins Friday at the Tokyo Games, the swimmers’ goal will be to make their movements appear effortless. But while viewers will see smiling performers, sparkly suits and gelatin-slicked hair, a risk lurks beneath the surface: the potential for concussions.
Artistic swimming, formerly known as synchronized swimming, combines elements of gymnastics and ballet in the water. Teams of up to eight athletes swim quickly, closely and precisely together, coordinating with one another and the music. Often described as beautiful above the water, the sport requires constant furious activity below. It’s not unusual for teammates to kick or land on each other during their routines.
The artistic swimming world has long known it has a brain injury problem, but nobody knew how extensive it was. So in 2019, as a student researcher at Stanford, I conducted research into how common concussions are in the sport in which I once took part.
The answer surprised me: In a survey of 430 athletes, about one in four who have competed in the United States reported having at least one concussion.
“Yeah that’s actually a lot more than I expected,” Karina Boyle, 25, said in an interview beside the pool where she trained for most of her career. Boyle, who swam for national teams, is now retired. “But I know it can be a pretty brutal sport when you’re swimming so close to each other and it’s very active.”