One of the risks involved in taking on the world at the Olympics is you sometimes find that the rest of the world has overtaken you.
The United States has been the dominant force in synchronized swimming since the sport earned medal status at the 1984 Olympics. The U.S. Olympic team won either gold or silver in every event between 1984-96 and billed itself proudly as "the most successful American Olympic sport."
But things changed after the Atlanta Games. The entire roster of the '96 Olympic team retired. The Americans were forced to rebuild with a new generation of swimmers. Meanwhile, the other nations were finally catching on, and catching up, in a sport that had been ruled by Americans since the first meet was held 61 years ago in Chicago.
Not only didn't the U.S. win a gold here, it was shut out completely. The duet of Anna Kozlova and Tuesday Middaugh finished fourth. Then on Friday, the Americans settled for fifth out of eighth in the team competition.
Still, Buffalo native Bridget Finn, who was one of the eight U.S. swimmers in Friday's free routine final, said the American women were happy with their performance.
"Of course we would love to have a medal," Finn said. "But we felt like we had a real great swim and we were really proud of ourselves. We know we put in the work. We worked as hard as we could and we're happy. We feel that was a real good swim for us."
Russia, which had never won a synchronized swimming medal, took the gold with an overall score of 99.333. Japan, which had won all seven bronzes from 1984-96, took the silver. Canada, which like the U.S. had never finished lower than second in previous Olympics, took the bronze.
Reputation matters greatly in synchronized swimming, as it does in other subjective sports like figure skating and gymnastics. Once the judges form an impression of your work, it's hard to sway them from it. Judges tend to "slot" teams and it's hard to make up ground on the leaders.
The eight teams in Friday's free routine, for example, finished in exactly the same order as they had in the technical program the day before. Nothing changed. The U.S., despite a strong free routine, stayed in fifth place.
"We were in a tough place, swimming fourth," said Finn, a graduate of City Honors. "It's hard, but everyone on the team felt really good about the swim. You can only control yourselves and the swim. Beyond that, we have no control."
The U.S. free routine was titled "Eye of the Storm." It incorporated music from Vivaldi to Vangelis and simulated the various phases of a major storm. Finn said the team swam a similar theme at the pre-Olympic meet in April, then essentially rewrote the routine.
"It was a pretty fast time to write a new routine," Finn said. "And we just added tons of new choreography, new difficulty. I think we have a lot of really intricate, difficult hybrids -- underwater sequences -- and we added a lot of interesting lifts. So our routine was strong and we've worked real hard to get this together and make huge improvements on the routine."
Finn said it was a thrill to perform the routine in an Olympic Games, before an enthusiastic crowd of about 10,000 in the Sydney Aquatic Center. She said she also felt as if she was representing all the synchronized swim clubs back in Western New York, where she got her start.
She said she'll spend the next three weeks traveling in Australia, then decide what she wants to do from here. At 26, though, Finn says her days of competing are over. Regardless of the result, she will always have an Olympic experience to look back on.
"Just to be here is great," she said. "The crowd was wonderful. I know in my first lift I went off and immediately I saw like a million camera flashes. Staying in the village and meeting people was great. It was all like a dream."