Spending a little time with Canada’s young synchronized swimmers, you quickly realize a fact that eluded you in years of watching them through the false lens of television:
Synchro is a contact sport.
When you see the eight-person team headed this weekend into the World Cup at Quebec City (live streamed on cbcsports.ca), working above the water, they are at varying times soloists and Corps de Ballet, gracefully finishing their lines, performing with the music, smiling to the audience in perfect harmony.
Below is another world, one of power, strength and skill that brings their heads, shoulders, knees and feet into sometimes dangerous proximity while the swimmers seemingly ignore Newton’s Third Law of Motion.
Learning the new and ever-more claustrophobic routines required to compete at the world level, the young women often smack knees and shoulders, kick each other in the head and, on occasion, clock a teammate in the nose.
In other words, a sport Canadians can appreciate.
“It’s more of a contact sport than people think, probably because they can’t really see what’s going on under water, but it’s a big jumble of movements,” says Calgary’s Claudia Holzner, a member of the technical and combo teams that had been part of a display for media and guests at the new Pan Am aquatic centre in Toronto.
“No matter what, there’s always something that’s going wrong.”
The point, as you get closer to a major competition, is indeed not to have something go wrong. And these days it’s becoming ever harder because unlike 10 years ago the technical requirements of this sport are forcing swimmers right into each other’s personal space.
Through it, sometimes.
“Even in the last performances today, we had a couple of crazy things going on … kicking each other, people landing on each other,” Holzner says. “This is the stuff we’ve been through at practice, it’s not something we want to have at a competition.”
These young women, who run from 18 to 25, are made of sterner stuff than the standard cliché, brought to life in an infamous (and hilarious) 1984 Saturday Night Live skit.
They’ve all seen it, and giggle when you mention it. They are not it, however.
Synchro athletes are, in effect, the top half of a dancer sewn on the bottom half of a water polo player that can also handle ballet moves when the whole thing turns upside down.
It’s a tough combination.
Holzner has survived three concussions, two of them serious, while building through the junior ranks into senior. Her first was in 2010 and cost three months of training.
“I lost all of my muscle memory of how to do synchro and I had a coach there who had to reteach me how to swim,” she says, as matter-of-fact as any hockey player.
No matter what, there’s always something that’s going wrong.
There was another smaller concussion after coming back that cost a couple of weeks following which Holzner merely swept all of the events at junior nationals in 2011.
Holzner's third concussion was last season on the senior team.
“My first one was really bad, I had headaches for about two years … I struggled with that one,” she says. “Headaches were the main thing, I didn’t really experience a lot of dizziness or nausea.”
Dr. Bill Moreau, a medical director for the United States Olympic Committee, was quoted in a 2012 book (Concussions and our Kids, by Dr. Robert Cantu and Mark Hyman) as saying that in a two-week U.S. synchro camp, half of the 12 elite athletes reported concussions.
As with many sports, this one has seen new concussion protocols in recent years.
If you are going to put two (duet) or eight women together in a small spot to flail their arms, legs and heads around within inches of each other, you’re going to need a coach they believe in.
Meet Meng (pronouced Mong) Chen, a former Chinese national athlete who has been with Canada since 2008 (under the legendary Julie Sauve) and the boss since 2012. She inspires trust.
Listen to Karine Thomas, the “old fart” on the team at 25 and the only one left from the London Olympics where Canada was fourth in the team event.
“She has an amazing trust in us, and I think that comes from us having a lot of trust in her,” says the Gatineau native. “I will literally go blindly into anything if she tells me to do it. I will.
“I think she’s the best leader we could have for Canada.”
One of the synchro world’s youngest head coaches, Chen takes seriously the dual responsibility of getting Canada back onto a podium the country used to dominate, and keeping her charges safe.
It comes down to choreographing in a balance between logic and execution, and creating patterns and highlights that bring courage out of that confidence.
“A person will not do something when somebody else is right there,” says Chen, using her hands to show someone too close. “We are going to take a certain risk on a certain logical movement.”
Going too far, she says, means “you will pay by throwing your execution right out the window. This is why coaches in this area, and I think figure skating is the same thing, [you ask] what kind of risk you want to take, and what kind of risk is worth taking?”
It is the risk-reward game that all sports require and in synchro the athletes themselves are now smarter at looking after themselves by using their arms, or a little push, to protect themselves.
They are the youngest and oldest swimmers on Canada’s synchro team and between them the best hope of putting the country back on the Olympic podium for the first time since 2000 in Sydney.
Karine Thomas, 25, is the only team member left from the fourth-place finish at London in 2012. She happily agrees to being the “old fart.”
Jacqueline Simoneau, just turned 18 last week, is the subject of whispers you hear around the pool that she might be world champion material.
When coach Meng Chen put them together this past spring, magic emerged and the long trip to 2016 in Rio begun. It’s already made a lot of stops.
“This year we’ve competed like crazy,” says Thomas, sitting with Simoneau after a workout and trying to work out where they’ve been.
They laugh after realizing out loud the extent of their competition and travel schedule.
“I’d say after the first meet, every time we competed we got a bit better. Just the energy between us was pretty easy from the get go … it wasn’t something we had to work on too much.”
Thomas tends to dominate the conversation because of their age and experience difference and Simoneau’s natural shyness.
In the pool, however, Simoneau explodes into a flurry of colour and strength that has made her the legitimate solo heir to the now-retired Marie-Pier Boudreaux-Gagnon. That event is no longer in the Olympics however, so duet is the future.
“I think from the first practice just when I saw the way Karine worked I think I trusted her already,” says Simoneau, second at the world juniors in solo this summer. “I mean, we’re cautious at first … but after a day I think we got used to each other.”
How good this team can be came to light in June with a second-place finish to the heavily favoured Spanish side, at the Spanish Open, by a hairsbreadth.
Back in London 2012, Boudreaux-Gagnon and Elise Marcotte were fourth in the Olympic duet. The new pair wants to do them at least one better.
'We've been holding our breath for years'
There is, in synchro, a moment called a “feature” that always seeks to separate the old style from the new.
Five of the women present a geometric pattern that churns the water with the eggbeater kick and, by doing so, creates lift. Below, one person acts as the base to help two others in a combined surface break that would do an Orca proud.
It’s the moment that can take your breath away as one athlete suddenly streaks up … up … up, until her whole body is out of the water. Another follows right behind and almost reaches the same altitude before both execute a graceful return.
Almost always graceful – a Canadian move also includes one swimmer who flies high and then lands KER-SPLASH in a full layout. That’s gotta sting a bit.
Being under the water is unnatural for human beings, accounting for the strength of the survival instinct that kicks in when we’re struck while below the surface.
Remember when you were a child and some moron shoved your head under?
You try swimming 400 metres full out in the same space as seven others, all while holding your breath.
Fighting that panic, making the water world more natural, is a key part of the battle for the synchro athlete.
“We’ve been doing this since we were seven or eight, we’ve been holding our breath for years, so we’re very trained to make it through the panic,” says Holzner. “We’ve all been to the point where we’ve passed out, so it’s something that’s very normal to us.”
There has always been the idea that synchro is somehow a non-sport because it harkens back to “water ballet” and the 1930s Hollywood films of Esther Williams. Cute girls doing cute little things to cute little music.
The athletes know this. And they know some of the reason is their own talents.
“Our job is to make it look easy,” says Holzner. “We all know people think it’s a cheesy sport… but at the same time a lot (of people) are learning that it’s becoming a lot more difficult, more acrobatic, and exciting.”
You try swimming 400 metres full out in the same space as seven others, all while holding your breath.
Not just for show
Those nose clips worn by synchronized swimmers may look funny on television, but they serve an important purpose both as a way of keeping water out, and providing us a metaphor for the focus of those who wear them.
Athletes spend so much time holding their breath while performing intricate and powerful moves – usually upside down – that having the clips keeps the water out.
“The nose clip is a big thing,” says swimmer Claudia Holzner. “If a nose clip gets knocked off, and that has happened (to me) a couple of times in competition, we always have an extra.”
Knowing what to do in such an instance takes presence of mind.
“More so in practice, if we don’t have an extra and someone loses one, we yell during the routine “Give me a nose clip!” and someone will take one off their suit and give it to you.”
Holzner, who can hold her breath through a routine without one (but doesn’t) says one time a girl simply reached up and took her extra one in the middle of a move.
Concentration, and awareness.