Edmonton boy makes a splash on synchronized swimming scene

When Ben Villeneuve joined competitive synchronized swimming, he knew he'd be the only boy. It didn't bother him.

Ben Villeneuve, 8, is the first boy to compete in synchronized swimming in Edmonton

Ben Villeneuve, 8 is the first boy to compete in synchronized swimming in Edmonton and taking a leading role in Nova Synchro Club's Peter Pan routine. 0:44

When Ben Villeneuve joined competitive synchronized swimming, he knew he'd be the only boy.

"It didn't bother me," the eight-year-old said, before putting on his white swim cap and plastic nose plug and jumping into the pool with his Nova Synchro Club teammates — who are all girls. 

At Kinsmen Sports Centre, they practised figures, the shapes they take in the water, for their upcoming Peter Pan-themed routine. 

My favourite part is when we do it, sometimes you get lifted in the air.- Ben Villeneuve

"My favourite part is when we do it, sometimes you get lifted in the air," said Ben, who has the starring role of Peter Pan. 

He's following in the footsteps of his big sister, Isabelle, a competitive synchronized swimmer with gymnastics training. 

"It's just all these different strengths that we both seem to have, and we put it all together into this one really difficult sport," said Isabelle, 13.

If it looks easy, she said, that's because the athletes are good. 

Ben said he wanted to take up the sport while at the pool with his mother watching his sister do figures. 

"It looked quite hard, but then I realized I can do some," he said. "I just thought it would be cool, and I can swim with my sister."

Isabelle Villeneuve, second from left in the white bathing suit, practises with teammates from Nova Syncrho Club at Kinsmen Sports Centre. (Roberta Bell/CBC)

A family affair

The siblings not only support each other, their mother, Claudia Villeneuve, is a synchronized swimming judge. 

"It's been quite the ride," said Claudia, who didn't think twice about enrolling her son in the sport when he expressed interest. "I understand now how parents feel when they push their kids to do hockey or something they did when they were young."

She'd seen men compete before, but only in videos. Her son is the first male she's seen perform in real life. 

Now, all the clubs in the world are looking for men to join and expand the teams.- Claudia Villeneuve , mother

"I'm very proud," Claudia said.

It was only in 2015 that FINA — the body governing international swimming — allowed men to compete in high-level synchronized swimming events. 

"That opened the doors," Claudia said. "Now, all the clubs in the world are looking for men to join and expand the teams."

Her son was cool, calm and collected during his first competition in Sherwood Park in November. 

"I was one of the judges but I wasn't allowed to judge him. I was just watching," Claudia said. "He was calm. It was like nothing to him.

"He has stamina for the stress of competition." 

'We're really lucky to have him' 

Nova Synchro Club head coach Kim Phillips Langer said Ben is a welcome addition. 
Kim Phillips Langer, head coach of Nova Synchro Club, says the club was excited to have a boy join its competitive programming. (Roberta Bell/CBC)

"We're really lucky to have him. He definitely puts in a lot of effort at practice, and shows up every day ready to work. He's a great little swimmer."

The club had no qualms when Ben signed up, though there were a few logistical hiccups. 

"There are a lot of things to consider when you haven't had a boy in your club before, in terms of travel," Phillips Langer said. "How do you put them on your team?"

But now that's all sorted out now and the focus is completely on the sport. 

"He's really excited to swim this year," Phillips Langer said. "I'm hoping that as he goes with it, he'll continue to love the sport and it won't be an issue whether he's a boy or a girl."

Ben Villeneuve gets advice from one of his coaches during a Nova Synchro Club practice at Kinsment Sports Centre. (Roberta Bell/CBC )

roberta.bell@cbc.ca        @roberta__bell