Russia's Natalia Ishchenko and Svetlana Romashina perform underwater.

London – An Olympic water ballet of unheralded mermaids with glittery costumes, waterproof makeup and locked-on smiles began as Russia's synchronised swim dynasty took aim at a fifth gold medal in a row.

Moving in synchronicity to each other and the music, the duos blend flair, strength, poise, beauty and breath-holding in epic fashion, the water nymphs' goal to keep broad smiles through it all as they breathe through their teeth.

Defending Olympic champions Natalia Ishchenko and Svetlana Romashina of Russia led after the duets technical routine with 98.20 points, bathing beauties with Bolshoi-worthy moves even in the deep end of the pool.

“We train 10 hours a day,” Ishchenko said. “To train more than 10 hours a day is physically impossible. We have the best coaches and specialists in the world and thank God they still live in Russia.

“It's also about talent. It's about soul. The Russians are very good at ballet and gymnastics because the Russian soul is about living the music and living the dance.”

Their routine, including tricky legwork moves at the start, was performed to Michael Jackson's “They Don't Care About Us.”

“When we picked the tune we were so worried that after all the training we would be sick of it, but we still love it,” Romashina said.

“Michael Jackson is forever.”

Other swimmers performed to a range of tunes from Aretha Franklin's “Think” to Hans Zimmer's “Sherlock Holmes” and “Madagascar” movie themes and Ravel's “Bolero” for the Egyptian duo of Shaza Abdelrahman and Dalia Elgebaly.

“They are representing Africa, Arabs, maybe the Middle East too. It's the only country in the region (doing synchro). It makes you different. Up to now, we have had no problem. Egypt is called the Hollywood of the East.”

The Russians are the envy of their rivals, their duos having not dropped a major global competition in 11 years.

“The Russians are amazing. Even those who compete against them are in awe,” said US rival Mary Killman.

“They are almost perfect,” Russian-American Mariya Koroleva said. “Their duet looks like one person in two.”

Underwater speakers help them keep in time to the music and the fish gelatin once used to slick hair back has been replaced by a less-odorous synthetic.

Pool chlorine left Isabel Delgado Plancarte's eyes red, but the Mexican who looks forward to howling life a wolf in the free routine is not worried.

“My eyes do not hurt much because this routine is quite short,” she said. “Later on they will be fine. I'm used to the chlorine in the pool.”

Synchro swimmers wear nose clips to keep from getting water up their nostrils while swimming underwater for so long it takes your breath away just to watch.

“We try not to count how long we are underwater for because otherwise we would faint,” said Spain's Andrea Fuentes Fache.

The Spanish duo is third on 96.00 and mystified by the Russians as well.

“They are machines,” she said. “They are really cool and I want to congratulate them because I don't understand how they can be so good.”

Russia also will be tested by second-place China ahead of Tuesday's final, the Chinese pair of Liu Ou and Huang Xuechen in second on 96.10 and ready to unleash “The Dragon”, their new free routine.

“Our advantage is technique. We are very strong technically,” Liu said. “We are different because we are stronger and taller than the average synchronised swimmer.” – Sapa-AFP