Synchronized swimming, a women's only event, is considered intriguing enough by officials to possibly become one of the showstoppers of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
A brand new sport to the Olympics, it dates back to the 1920s and 30s, when floating formations, figures swimming, and water ballet were emerging. The first US championship was held in 1946.
''I think it's going to be the hit of the '84 Games, much like gymnastics was with Olga Korbut,'' said David J. Flood, swimming commissioner of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee. ''Once the public learns to appreciate its artistry and understand its rules, this sport is going to generate tremendous interest.''
Synchronized swimming is often described as combining the entertainment value of former MGM star and freestyle champion Esther Williams with the endurance of a world-class athlete. Its rules and judging are comparable to gymnastics and figure skating. At least 15 countries will be represented at next year's Olympic competition, including the top three contenders, Canada, the United States, and Japan.
''Actually today's girls are much more skilled and much more involved in what they are doing than Esther Williams ever was,'' explained Marilyn Angier, an expert on the sport and a member of the Olympic press operations staff. ''What Williams did was artistic and showy, just what you'd want for the movies. But today's girls must have the grace of a dancer, the strength of a water polo player, a knowledge of kinesiology, plus an awareness of gymnastics to be successful.
''Most synchronized swimmers started as speed swimmers in local clubs, where they took lessons and then suddenly discovered that lap swimming wasn't fulfilling their artistic needs,'' Angier continued. ''If you probe further, you'll invariably find that most of them also have combination swim-dance backgrounds. Once they do get into synchronized swimming, of course, you are talking about practicing four to eight hours a day, although with long rest breaks in between.''
Synchronized swimmers are required to perform intricate maneuvers below and on the surface of the water that can look deceptively easy to spectators, but require months of practice to perfect.
Among other factors, competitors are judged on how effortlessly they perform, even while staying underwater up to 45 seconds at a time. They are also judged on how well their routines conform to whatever music they select.
Synchronized swimmers perform routines of three and a half minutes for a solo; four minutes for a duet (the only event incorporated into the '84 Olympics); and five minutes for the eight-person team competition. To receive the maximum number of points, swimmers must utilize the entire pool area without touching the sides or bottom.
Competitions are broken into two categories: compulsory figures and a routine performed to music.
In the recent Sunkist American Cup II Championships at LA's Olympic Swim Stadium, Tracie Ruiz of the US won the gold medal in the solo event, plus the duet title with Candy Costie. Canada captured team honors. Ruiz also won the solo this week at the Pan American Games.
Asked how coaches decide on which athletes will probably swim well together, Angier replied: ''They look for girls whose bodies match up well physically. That is very important, and twins actually do seem to have an edge. However, temperaments and styles don't necessarily have to be the same.''
There are currently two sets of twins on the US national team, Sarah and Karen Josephson of Bristol, Ct., and Marguerita and Alice Smith of Bethesda, Md.
Angier says girls usually get into synchronized swimming between 8 and 12 years of age and compete through their early 20s. Most drop out at that point because careers, marriage, and other commitments prevent serious training, not because of diminished ability.
The 1984 US Olympics synchronized swimming team will have eight regular members, plus two alternates. It will be coached by Gale Emery, a former competitor herself, whose Walnut Creek, Calif. club won the 1983 Nationals.
For several years synchronized swimming was dominated by the United States; the US winning gold medals in the team events at the 1975 and 1979 Pan Am Games, the 1978 World Championships, and the 1980 American Cup.
However in 1981, Canada upset the US, winning the gold in the Pan-Pacific Games by a score of 188.00 to 186.98. Then last summer, at the World Championships in Ecuador, the Canadians successfully defended their title.
Meanwhile Japan has been turning out demitasse swimmers who are as efficient as that country's high-mileage cars. At the 1982 World Championships, the Japanese team actually won the routine portion of the competition, outpointing both Canada and the United States, only to finish third overall.