Synchronized-Swimming

Canadian synchro stars Simoneau, Thomas form dynamic duo

Imagine four minutes of intense exercise, like playing hockey at full speed, or running a mile. Then think of doing it while holding your breath. Upside down. That's how Jacqueline Simoneau and Karine Thomas like to describe synchronized swimming.

Canada’s duet team favoured to win Pan Am Games gold

Canadian synchronized swimmers Jacqueline Simoneau (left) and Karine Thomas are favourites to win the gold medal at the Pan Am Games. ((Frank Gunn/Canadian Press))

Imagine four minutes of intense exercise, like playing hockey at full speed, or running a mile.

Then think of doing it while holding your breath. Upside down.

That's how Jacqueline Simoneau and Karine Thomas like to describe synchronized swimming. Stripped bare of the sparkly swimsuits and hair gel, synchro is a gruelling mix of lung-busting athleticism and balletic grace. Training for the sport is as tough as it gets.

"We try to make it look as easy as possible, we put a smile on our face, but it's harder than it looks," Simoneau said.

The 18-year-old from Montreal and Thomas, a 26-year-old from Gatineau, Que., are the favourites to win gold at next month's Pan American Games, a qualifying event for next year's Rio Olympics. Canada is a Pan Am powerhouse, sweeping gold in the team and duet four years ago in Mexico.

Canada has narrowly missed the medal podium at the last three Olympics — the last Canadian medal was a bronze in the team event in 2000 in Sydney.

The Canadians are trying to push the sport with the creativity of their programs. They're also hoping a scientific approach may put them back on the Olympic podium. At their training base in Montreal, a series of underwater cameras monitors their every movement.

Synchro swimmers have a unique skill set — they can hold their breath, for instance, for up to three minutes. Their workouts include hypoxia training (training while oxygen-deprived). They'll swim lengths underwater, or swim front crawl without turning their heads to take a breath.

It's not unheard of for a synchro swimmer to pass out during a workout.

"Those (workouts) are really, really hard, but beneficial," Thomas said. "Plus, we just train the routines so much, that's what builds our endurance to be able to hold our breath and move 100 miles an hour at the same time."

Uncanny ability

They've developed an uncanny ability to sense exactly their position in the water, whether upside down or not. Unlike competitive swimmers, who shave their bodies pre-race, synchro swimmers don't. The hair on their legs acts as touch receptors, like whiskers on a cat.

"You can feel the [water] levels on your skin a little bit better, so if my coach tells me 'I want you exactly at this height out of the water,' for me to feel that, if I'm totally shaved down like the swimmers are, I won't be able to," Thomas said. "A little bit of hair on your legs will help you to figure out where you are in the water."

Swimmers can hold their upper bodies above the water's surface by a furious kicking motion called "eggbeater." They "scull" with their hands to maintain position while upside down.

"We train diving, gymnastics, speed swimming, strength and conditioning, weightlifting all into one sport, while holding your breath," Simoneau said. "It's a whole bunch of sports mixed into one."

Thomas is the lone holdover from the Canadian team that finished fourth at the 2012 London Olympics. She and Simoneau, a rising star in the sport and a silver medallist at last summer's world championships, after Synchro Canada put its athletes through a series of tests to find the best match.

The two say the age difference is no big deal.

"Our chemistry in the water is very different from our personal chemistry, we're really good friends, we get along really well, but when we're in the water, we're all business," Thomas said. "We just get straight to the point, we do what needs to be done and there's not a whole lot of personal feelings that get caught up in it.

"That's what I love so much about this relationship, this duet that we have, we just get things done."

Simoneau calls Thomas a mentor, and "big sister."

"I've learned so much from her since we started together, out of synchro and in synchro, her experience."

The synchro competition will be held at the new CIBC Pan Am/Parapan Am Aquatics Centre in the east end of Toronto.

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