North America is coming back
The last FINA Synchronised Swimming World Trophy, held in November 2009 in Montreal (CAN), gave fans a rare glimpse of something that had not occurred since 1996: a country other than Russia at the top of the podium. Three gold medals (highlight team, thematic duet and thematic team) secured Canada’s victory at the World Trophy, opening a door that had been closed for more than a decade.
For 25 years, the United States and Canada made a “gold-medal relay” of the main competitions around the globe, but the Russians have exerted their domination since 1997. With Canada’s late success, many synchronised swimming fans and specialists now ask the question: “Can the ‘founders’ regain their former glory?"
After the FINA World Trophy, Team Canada head coach Denise Sauvé said: “The performances of our swimmers exceeded our expectations. They consolidate our comeback on the international scene; which is promising for the 2012 Olympic Games.”
Synchronised swimming history reminds us that the sport was primarily developed in North America, a fact reflected in the dominance that the United States and Canada enjoyed for many years.
At the 1997 FINA Synchronised Swimming World Cup and 1998 FINA World Championships, a new nation made its debut on the podium and enchanted everyone with their extreme elegance, technical strength and charismatic swimmers. At these two events, the Russian delegation won solo, duet and team events with Olga Sedakova, Olga Brusnikina and a very talented group of swimmers. A “dynasty” was born, one that would grow into a today’s tally of six Olympic gold medals and 22 FINA World Championships gold medals.
At the 2009 FINA World Championships in Rome, Canada won two bronze medals (solo technical and combination) and took fourth place in the solo free, duet free, team technical and free events. That marked a big move up for Canada since the Melbourne 2007 FINA World Championships, at which it took sixth place in all events.
In Melbourne, the US team won a bronze medal in the combination and finished in fifth place in all other events; a much better result than Rome, where the best American performance was the seventh place in the technical team event.
Denise Sauvé notes that the reconstruction of Synchro Canada began in 2008, with the most experienced coaches in the country invited to play a key role. That new start underpins the Canadian team’s FINA World Trophy victory.
The Canadian head coach explains: “Synchro Canada proceeded with a reorganisation of the synchronised swimming structure in Canada, which also included the centralisation of the best 24 athletes in only one National Training Centre based in Montreal. With the excellent support of the administration of Synchro Canada, the national team restarted with new and stronger bases. I also think that the determination of the athletes and coaches was a big part of our success.”
The United States also reviewed its strategy. American head coach, Charlotte Davis, explains what the country is doing to get back on top: “In order to regain a medal position, the USA must focus on further development of its younger athletes to broaden its base, from the junior programme all the way down to the very young age group swimmer. We are identifying talented athletes at an earlier age and developing appropriate strength and conditioning programmes for such athletes across the country.”
In order to regain a medal position, the USA must focus on further development of its younger athletes to broaden its base, from the junior programme all the way down to the very young age group swimmer.
To help fulfilling such task, Davis notes that the sport gets help from the United States Olympic Committee in terms of creating the right environment for success, through the provision of sports science, coaching and conditioning expertise for the new generation of young athletes selected by talent spotters. The head coach hopes that “these specialists aid our synchro specific coaches to design standardised, progressive, consistent training and skill development for athletes of all ages”.
Sauvé’s explanation shows that like the American team, Canada is also using knowledge to prepare the nation for a stronger showing in international waters: “In 2009, Synchro Canada hired a Technical Domestic Director to especially increase the technical ability of our Canadian athletes and coaches. Last year, Synchro Canada presented coaches and judges clinics to discuss Canadian strategies, compiled and distributed figures teaching videos, flexibility programmes, coach workbooks containing theoretical info specific to synchro exercises for each stage of athlete development. Synchro Canada also hosted a High Performance Summit, a three-day conference for our top level coaches and judges with lectures and presentation from various experts. We also improved our communication with the clubs. Hopefully, all those initiatives are improving the skills of local athletes, Synchro Canada’s future”.
In contrast to the approach of the Canadian and US coaches, Russian head coach Tatiana Pokrovskaya, one of the masterminds of the Russian team’s success, prefers to talk about creativity and routines. During a clinic in Brazil last January she talked to the press about the Russian synchronised swimming structure and the stability and value it provides for experienced coaches. “The coaches in Russia have the same value than the athletes. This gives us stability and continuity”, says Russia’s head coach.
“Experience is something important for Canada as well,” Sauvé notes. “I think the reconstruction of Synchro Canada in 2008 led us to win the 2009 FINA World Trophy. And part of this reorganisation was the hiring of the best and experienced coaches in Canada who brought their artistic and acrobatic strengths”.
But for Tatiana Pokrovskaya, something beyond that makes the real difference. In her opinion, training in ballet in the land of the Bolshoi is an advantage for Russia and lies at the heart of preparation for the synchro world. Rhythm and “feeling” are all that matters to her: “I’m not interested in athletes making mechanical movements in a hurry. We spend one hour only feeling the music and marking [time] inside the rhythm. I could see that other countries are doing something very similar, in other words, working very strong with ballet.”
Artistic impression aside, the Russians are, of course, excellent technicians and strive for “perfection” in almost every single movement. It is quite easy to see how precise and “clean” they are in their figures, with a perfect transition between the elements. Of course, technology and a hard training programme also play a big part but the “secret” of the Russian success seems to be the reunion of these aspects – art and technique – with a real sense of rhythm, giving the impression that each piece of music is made for that particular routine.
True to the view that World and Olympic champions are made from an early age, Pokrovskaya notes that all Russian swimmers are trained from the start to listen to the music and fulfill a strong discipline of exercises that leads towards perfection.
“Swimmers are used to this kind of work since the very beginning in the sport. They are trained to have discipline and artistic sensibility. We look for the talents and give a special attention to the initiation because they will be our champions”, she explains.
In this regard – identification of talents and consequent training in the best possible conditions – the Americans, Canadians and Russians are perfectly “synchronised”.
Synchro competitions have developed a great deal since the first FINA World Championships at Belgrade in 1973. Now, everything is more spectacular and the discipline has captured the imagination of TV audiences worldwide. New figures, events, beauty and perfection of movements, acrobatics, swimwear, creativity of the routines, power and energy, etc., combine to create a magical display to present to the public.
The result is that the sport and its stars have become increasingly popular. The Americans and Canadians, the first two synchronised swimming powerhouses, now find themselves in competitive company alongside more than traditional rivals Japan and France (the two main contenders of the past) and Russia (the supremacy of which has kept all at bay for the past decade).
At the FINA World Championships in Barcelona in 2003, Spain showed the world that they were ready to enter the “beauty contest”. The Iberians won three medals and have continued to appear on the podium ever since (we should not forget to mention Rome 2009, where the team won their first gold medal at a FINA World Championships). In Rome, both China and Italy also joined the “World Medallists club”.
How many nations will remain at the top after the next FINA World Championships or Olympic Games? Spain, China and Italy are feeding many new candidates through their programmes and working to win a prominent place in synchronised swimming history. World synchro geography is evolving fast.
With eyes fixed on the upcoming Olympic Games at home, Great Britain and Brazil are running fast to prepare their athletes in time. Ukraine and Greece are also constant battlers in the fight to move up the rankings.
Sauvé believes that to progress, those nations must take part in more international competition. Their visibility at FINA competitions will also help to popularise synchronised swimming in their countries, the knock-on effect of which is to bring more girls into the sport. Ultimately, we may then see more nations making it to the podium.
For Davis, knowledge is the key to success. “We must enlarge the number and skills of all countries worldwide. The United States has been a major leader in this area, generously sharing knowledge and information through Regional and International Clinics, Video, Lectures and Seminars. The current leaders on the podium need to continue this well-established system of sports education for the rest of the world as the United States has done for the past several decades. We need to keep improving scoring and judging systems and educating new and upcoming judges. This will ensure that judges will continue to judge performance and not the name of the country”.