08/06/2012 01:14 EDT | Updated 10/06/2012 05:12 EDT

Russia's Ishchenko, Romashina lead after duet free routine in synchro swimming

LONDON - Go ahead and give another gold to the Russians in synchronized swimming.

Natalia Ishchenko and Svetlana Romashina are mainly competing against their own standards.

Extending the country's domination in the hair gel and noseclip sport, Ishchenko and Romashina headed into the duet final as top qualifiers after the preliminary free routine Monday.

Performing to music that included the theme from Tim Burton's movie "Sleepy Hollow," the Russians glided effortlessly through the water to add to their leading marks in the technical preliminary. They easily claimed the top spot with 196.800 points, leaving everyone else to battle for silver.

The leaders are looking for perfection.

"Maybe about 90 per cent happy," Ishchenko said. "We have small things to fix for the final. I hope that the judges did not see those mistakes that our coach saw."

Apparently not.

The Russians were comfortably ahead of the other medal contenders, Huang Xuechen and Liu Ou of China in second with 192.810, followed by Ona Carbonell and Andrea Fuentes of Spain at 192.590.

"We don't care about Russia because they're (four) points ahead," Fuentes said. "We're at bronze currently. Our fight now is with China."

Marie-Pier Boudreau-Gagnon of Riviere-du-Loup, Que., and Elise Marcotte of Quebec City were fourth at 94.750.

"Our coach told us she thought it was our best swim, and we have upped our level of performance, even if the score does not reflect this particularly," Boudreau-Gagnon said.

The top 12 teams advanced to Tuesday's final. Among those getting through: The home British duo of Olivia Federici and Jenna Randall in ninth, along with the American pairing of Mary Killman and Mariya Koroleva in 10th.

But it would take some sort of major blunder for the Russians to lose this competition. They haven't dropped a synchro event at the Olympics since the 1996 Atlanta Games.

"We have made a few changes, upped the tempo, sped up our program," Ishchenko said.

The Russians aren't taking anything for granted. Asked how she would prepare for the final, Romashina said the country's athletes were told to avoid distractions by Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.

"No shopping," she said, laughing. "Medvedev has given the order to all athletes that they are not allowed to shop or walk around London. We only relax in the Olympic village."

The Chinese brought in a new duet after twins Jiang Wenwen and Jiang Tingting finished fourth at the Beijing Games.

"The world of synchronized swimming went into a new generation," Liu said. "Because the twins' physical condition was not too good ... that's why they are not competing here. That's why we were selected."

No one works harder that the Chinese, which helped boost their standing in a sport where reputation plays a large role in the judging.

"Our training is very tough," Liu said. "The longest session we've had is 10 hours nonstop training."

The U.S., which dominated the sport in the 1980s, didn't even qualify for the team event in London, leaving Killman and Koroleva as its only entries in synchro.

Clearly, the Americans have some catching up to do.

"The other countries have really developed their programs and reached above and beyond," Koroleva said. "The U.S. fell behind by just doing what we used to do. We need to think about how to revitalize the sport and how we run the sport in the States."


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