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By Alexandra Ulmer
RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Russian synchronised swimming stars Natalia Ishchenko and Svetlana Romashina's near-flawless routines have long had fans joking they are secretly mermaids or have gills.
In Tuesday's free routine final at the Rio 2016 Olympics, the duet at least pretended to.
Wearing scale-inspired swimsuits and batting their lean legs out of the water, feet sticking out to look like tails, they collected gold - as expected - and came even closer to sealing their status as sirens.
"Sometimes everyone calls us mermaids and asks us if we have gills, so we are really comfortable in this performance," said Romashina after their routine, as she took bobby pins out of her heavily gelled-back hair.
The Russians earned a final score of 194.9910, while China's pair Huang Xuechen and Sun Wenyan pocketed silver with 192.3688. Japan's Yukiko Inui and Risako Mitsui took bronze with 188.0547.
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Russians, bringing a tradition of ballet to the pool, have taken home the Olympic gold for duets since Sydney in 2000, earning a reputation for extreme precision and ever more creative choreographies.
The mermaid routine was so special for the Russian pair, which also won gold at London 2012, that they had the enticing music specially written for the Games.
But the Russian dynamo's future in the water is not clear: After Rio, Ishchenko and Romashina said they would take a "short break" to think about whether to continue.
Their retirement would likely inspire rivals who for years have felt silver and bronze were the only medals up for grabs.
"They're superhuman!" said France's Laura Auge, after completing an athletic routine to the beat of African drumming with partner Margaux Chretien.
"When we see them in training, we wonder how it's possible to do what they do," she added by the side of the pool.
Unfortunately for their competitors, the Russian stars won’t be sharing tips any time soon.
"It's our secret!" joked Romashina.
(Reporting by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Bill Rigby)