July 27, 2015

KAZAN, Russia (AP) For years they've been the queens of the pool, but now Russia's synchronized swimming stars are having to get used to something new - a fight for the gold.

So far this century, no-one has won an Olympic gold medal in synchronized swimming but the Russians. In the absence of any real rival for gold, they took to measuring success and failure not by the finishing position - it was almost always first at every competition - but by how vast the gap to second place was.

Now, ahead of next year's Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, one of the most dominant dynasties in sports is coming under pressure.

''It's really difficult to keep up the leadership for so many years and it's getting harder and harder,'' says team captain Anzhelika Timanina, an Olympic gold medalist who became a nine-time world champion Monday.

The sport - synchro to its devotees - has changed rapidly in recent years. This year sees men competing at the world championships for the first time in a mixed duet, and on Sunday the U.S. pair of Christina Jones and Bill May handed Russia its first worlds defeat for six years. Allowing men into the pool had been strongly opposed by many Russian swimmers and even politicians, with Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko saying last year it would damage what should be ''a purely feminine sport.''

The mixed duet is not yet an Olympic event, but competition is hotting up for the Russian women too. Always a tough test of fitness, routines are getting faster and faster, with rapid underwater elements placing athletes' bodies under increasing strain on a limited air supply.

On Monday, Russia retained its team technical title at the world championships, but withstood a tough challenge from China, taking the victory by 1.2852 points in front of a huge passionate home crowd at a pool installed inside a soccer stadium. Timanina suggested Russia's women had been pushed close to the limit of what was possible in synchro, with a winning program performed at ''crazy speed.''

The Russian women's years of dominance have put targets on their backs, says Clara Camacho of Spain, one of the countries trying to chase Russia down.

''We train six days a week, always two sessions of 5 hours each session, and it's very, very hard, mentally and physically,'' she told The Associated Press. ''I hope that with all the training we will beat Russia.''

Still, Spain and Russia's other rivals face an uphill struggle.

Camacho admits Spain has only ''a little bit of money'' to train and travel to competitions, and they are up against a Russian program with lavish government funding. At their training base near Moscow, the Russian team lives at a hotel next to their training pool, spending long hours in the water and in the gym.

At competitions, the Russians are known for their calm approach and tendency to stay aloof from the other teams, but it's wrong to see them as ice maidens, insists team member Alla Shishkina. ''If it seems like we're not worried, it's not true,'' she says. ''We're really worried ahead of every competition, and without that you can't have the right spirit.''

Generations of Russian synchro gold medalists have come and gone, but the one constant is head coach Tatyana Pokrovskaya, who has run the team since 1998. ''She's like gold to us,'' Russian swimmer Svetlana Kolesnichenko told the AP. ''If we didn't have her, we'd have nothing.''

Named a Hero of Labor for her successes - a Soviet-era title revived in 2013 by Russian President Vladimir Putin - Pokrovskaya admits Russia's swimmers are in for a tougher fight than before.

''I'd say everyone's got better and us too,'' she said. ''The level of synchro swimming's really grown.''

Other sports may have their dirty tricks and saboteurs, even figure skating, but not synchro, she insists. ''It's very friendly. You don't have anything like people blunting each other's skates.''

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