Canada's Marie-Pier Boudreau-Gagnon has emerged as a bona-fide superstar, leading Synchro Canada on a wave of optimism. (Kevin Frayer/Associated Press)
Over the years they've produced more than their fair share of international results. But somehow Canada's synchronized swimmers have only rarely surfaced to grab the headlines.
Yes, Carolyn Waldo and Sylvie Frechette are exceptions to the rule, and apart from American athletes, Canadians have won more medals than any country since the sport made its way to the Olympic program in 1984. Still, these champions have garnered only fleeting adulation from a sometimes fickle fan base which has often dismissed their sport as...too specialized, too artsy, too...well...
It seems they only get their due when they step onto the top rung of the Olympic ladder. Even then the glory doesn't last long.
At the recent German Open, which saw 34 countries plunge into the water in what is suddenly the pre-Olympic season, Canada emerged with three medals, two of them gold against powerful rivals such as China and Japan.
"It's a work in progress," said team member Tracy Little in advance of the competition. "Our main goal is to optimize our performances."
They did just that in Germany with their star Marie-Pier Boudreau-Gagnon of Riviere-du-Loup, Que., leading the way. Boudreau-Gagnon dominated the solo event and then combined with new partner Elise Marcotte to claim the duet title.
In the team competition Canada pulled even closer to China than its been in the recent past and won the silver medal. China and Russia will be the major roadblocks to Canadian gold-medal hopes at the London 2012 Games where only the duet and team events will be contested.
The next eight months are critical for the Canadian synchronized swimming team.
It's quite literally, sink or swim time.
"Our goal is a gold medal at the Pan American Games in Guadalajara [Mexico]," said Boudreau-Gagnon. "That means a direct pass to the Olympics."
The schedule will be heavy in order to achieve that goal, including training camps in Cancun, Mexico and Phuket, Thailand, as well as a major competition in Brazil, not to mention the FINA World Aquatics championships in Shanghai, in advance of the October Pan Am Games.
"In the recent past we've had no sponsorship, no training camps and not enough competition to be visible," said head coach Julie Sauve. "That's all changed this time."
Indeed, a major infusion of cash from a group of private investors known as B2ten has proven invaluable. Since last November, and leading up to the Olympics, the swimmers can count on $250,000 to help with specialized training.
They've put the money to immediate use by employing Scott Livingston, the former head trainer of the Montreal Canadiens, to increase their physical strength. Luc Belhumeur, who coached Alexandre Bilodeau to freestyle skiing gold in Vancouver, now instructs the synchronized swimmers in the finer points of acrobatics. Former Les Grand Ballets Canadiens performer Shana Troy is working on their flexibility. They also have frequent sessions in pilates.
In addition they've signed a $300,000 sponsorship deal with the Quebec medical aesthetics company, Epiderma, in order to pay for their extensive travel costs.
The increased investment is already reaping rewards.
"Before our association with B2ten we would never be able to pay any of these people," said Sauve. "And since we've been training the multi- disciplined approach we've had no injuries. Usually we go to a major championship with at least five or six."
At the 2009 World Trophy event in Montreal, Canada edged the Olympic champions from Russia in the team event. It's the first time Russia has not been on top of the podium in a dozen years. Then at last year's World Cup in China the Canadians won four medals, serving notice they are once again on the rise in terms of international rankings. Canada also beat a major rival in Spain at German Open.
These results combined with the medal haul at the German Open, the bolstered funding, and the emergence of Marie-Pier Boudreau-Gagnon as a bona fide superstar have Synchro Canada riding a wave of optimism.
Once again from the depths of anonymity, synchronized swimming is proving to be an unsinkable Canadian tradition.
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