Synchro success demands style and endurance
One of the delights of being part of the BBC's team at the Olympics is learning a whole new sport from scratch.
Clearly I'm never going to become an expert, but my aim is always to try and make unfamiliar sports accessible to an audience who only watches them once every four years, while at the same time not infuriating the cognoscenti who've devoted their lives to those sports, often without any recognition.
So for me, the road to 2012 began in earnest at the weekend, at Ponds Forge in Sheffield.
Synchronised Swimming. It's one of those sports which attracts a predictable response.
"What's with the nose-clips? And the lipstick? And the fixed smiles? It's an entertainment, not a sport, surely?"
The purpose of my trip to the European Synchro Champions Cup event was to give myself - and hopefully our audience on the Red Button - a rather more rounded view of an event which isn't always, it has to be admitted, taken all that seriously.
All I can say, after my two days of watching some of the world's finest synchro swimmers, is that these are athletes who should be taken very seriously indeed.
As Britain's Commonwealth silver medallist Jenna Randall put it: "It's like running the 400 metres while holding your breath, and smiling at the same time."
Imagine floating upside down in the deep end of your local pool, for something like 40 seconds at a time. You're surrounded by seven other people, and you're having to scull with your hands and arms to stay in the same position. Now propel yourself upwards in the water, so your legs rise above the surface in a perfect extension. Your team-mates are doing exactly the same moves at the same time. Then spin downwards so your feet disappear under the water in perfect synchronisation.
It's just one of the many sequences which the top teams perform as a matter of course. When the swimmers surface, they may have just a few seconds to grab a breath, before plunging down again, and maybe using the remaining power in their legs to push a team-mate above the water to do a perfect back-flip.
They can't touch the bottom of the pool at any time and they have to keep their eyes open so they can stay synchronised with the others (no goggles allowed in the performance). Team routines last for around four minutes - and it has to look effortless (hence the smiling).
And if you're still questioning the nose-clips, just imagine doing all that with a load of chlorinated water sloshing around your sinuses.
The skill, stamina and grace of the top synchro swimmers speaks for itself. Sheffield was lucky at the weekend to host the top two nations in the world at the moment, Russia and Spain. Their dedication to the sport is astounding - the Spanish train for 12 hours a day, every day, and if their coaches feel their standards are slipping, they can end up repeating their gruelling four-minute team performance up to 14 times in a row.
It's hard to compete with such commitment, but Britain's synchro team are making huge strides. Based at the Army barracks at Aldershot, under National Performance Director Biz Price, and helped by funding from the Lottery and British Swimming's sponsors British Gas, Randall and duet partner Olivia Allison clinched silver in last year's Commonwealth Games.
The weekend in Sheffield brought fifth placed finishes for Team GB in the duet and team events, against their top European rivals. And Sunday was rounded off by bronze in the team combination, not an Olympic discipline, but cause for celebration nonetheless.
Canada, China and Japan will be the major nations added to the mix for London 2012, but a top-six finish is a realistic target - a huge improvement on 14th in Beijing.
There will always be some who will argue that any event which includes artistic impression in its scoring is not a real sport, but I would defy anyone to watch these dynamic, dedicated athletes in action and dare to claim they are anything other than real sportswomen.