Montreal 2014, Synchro: "sport for life" is the motto!
More than 480 synchro swimmers performed in Montreal in one or more of the four events on the programme - Solo, Duet, Team and Free Combination - held from July 28 to August 2, 2014. If the team and free combination often generate the most "wows" thanks to sky-high jumps and original lifts, the solo is a particular event, where the athlete drives the audience in a world of her own.
On Saturday August 2, swimmers aged 25 to more than 80 years old shined in the solo free routine. On that sunny afternoon, the last performer of the day was Kanako Kitao of Japan, 2004 Olympic silver medallist in the team event in Athens. The 28-year-old stunned the judges and audience alike when she appeared on the pool deck with her hair loose and thin braids. The long, dark hair clearly added to the dramatic dimension of her magnificent routine. The audience was blown away, completely mesmerised by Kitao's unique performance.
"We wanted to create an eye-opener. But this can be a major distraction: you can lose your balance if your hair gets caught in your arms," coach Johanne Clerk explained.
Kanako Kitao (JPN) performing in the solo free event - credit: Montreal 2014
Kitao's boldness and strong skills brought her on the highest march of the podium for her age group (25-29). The swimmer from the California Synchro Masters club is also a performer at the world-renowned 'Cirque du Soleil', in the 'O' show in Las Vegas, the only one taking place entirely in the water.
When asked if performing at 'Cirque du Soleil' is a dream come true, Kitao was quick to reply: "No, to be here is the dream!"
It's not the first success for the Japanese in Montreal, the very place where she picked up silver with the team at the FINA World Championships in 2005. That same year, Kitao retired. Dreading she would not swim anymore, she applied to be a performer at 'Cirque du Soleil' and started exhibiting her prowess, training as a contortionist as well.
"It doesn't matter if you win or lose, we want people to stop and look at her," coach Clerk added.
And the standout performer to conclude, with excitement: "I'd like people to enjoy synchro!"
"I've loved synchro ever since Esther Williams"
When Joy Dahlgren (USA), the oldest synchro competitor in Montreal (80+ age group), first got acquainted with synchronised swimming, she was just about a teenager. In the early 1940s, Esther Williams, film star and national freestyle champion, was introducing the sport to the world with her hugely popular 'aqua musicals'.
Dahlgren, a synchro swimmer at the Redwood Empire masters club, Cal., took up the sport at 69. "I started training once a week until I realised it wasn't enough so I went up to three times a week," she said.
Dahlgren's performance in the solo technical and free, where she took gold, left no one unfazed.
"I was very moved to see her and the older swimmers competing. The skill level and grace is impressive," Anne Legendre-Becquet said, a 1988 European synchro junior champion from France.
"We can't wait to reach 80 years old and be performing like them!" a member of the Arpitania Synchro Masters, Switzerland, said.
"It gives us the will to keep going. Synchro is such a complete sport, that you can practice at any age."
American Nancy Weiman, who also took gold in the solo in her age group (60-69), is another telling example: having spent 60 years in the sport (and counting), the remarkable swimmer has competed in eight age groups (25+ through 60+) and attended ten FINA World Masters Championships.
"I come here to meet people again but also to make new friends," she said.
Graceful Nancy Weiman (USA) - credit: Delphine Schmutz/FINA
Along the way, Weiman has tallied more than 110 medals, most of them gold, at Masters competitions.
"It's creative, it's fun, and truly a sport for life!" Weiman said.
In 2006, she was inducted in the International Swimming Hall of Fame for her life-long commitment to synchronised swimming. Weiman played a key role in bringing the sport in the Olympic programme in 1984 for the Los Angeles Games.
As a swimmer, coach and founder of the DC Synchromasters club, Weiman is a tireless promoter of the sport, no matter the challenges in life: "I had both my hip and knee replaced and I can still practice synchro," the inspiring swimmer said, full of joy.