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It’s a Bird! No, It’s a Crocodile! Synchronized Swimming Themes Can Be Mystifying

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The sisters Anna-Maria and Eirini-Marina Alexandri of Austria performed a synchronized swimming duet to the Michael Jackson song “Smooth Criminal” on Monday at the Rio Games.

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James Hill for The New York Times

RIO DE JANEIRO — Down in the pool, the Australian synchronized swimming duo was performing a three-minute whistle-stop tour of the animals of the outback — kookaburras, emus, centipedes — to music from “Crocodile Dundee.” In the stands, the American mother-daughter duo of Ruth and Emily Thunstrum was trying to figure out what, exactly, was going on.

“There was definitely a bird of some kind,” Emily said.

“I think there was a crocodile,” Ruth answered. “You should know — you spent that time in Australia.”

You do not have to be from someplace other than Australia to be mystified by synchronized swimming, a sport that lies in the corner of the Twilight Zone where kabuki opera meets advanced underwater survival. It may look as if the athletes are simply gesticulating emphatically; flinging themselves around in improbable aquatic…

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