Bregje and Noortje de Brouwer are as in sync as it gets. The 21-year-old twins from the Netherlands train, live and compete together, follow the same studies in economics, and often finish each other’s sentences.
However, the artistic swimmers wouldn’t change anything for the world. It has never even crossed their minds to swim in a duet with anybody else. They love sharing everything, overcoming hurdles together to reach their common goals, and knowing what the other is thinking with just one look.
“People always think that we do the same because we are twins,” Noortje said. “But it’s more that we are doing the same because…”
“...we have the same goal,” Bregje continued.
de Brouwer sister at the FINA World Championships Gwangju 2019 © Getty Images
“It was really special to do it with the whole world”
The Netherlands used to be amongst the powerhouses of then-synchronised swimming right from the first World Championships in 1973. The small nation often found itself in the top five for nearly two decades, but it eventually dropped in the rankings in the 1990s and hasn’t quite recovered since.
While a return to the top five is unrealistic for now, Bregje and Noortje are aiming to qualify their country for the Olympics in the duet event for the first time since 2008. In only two years, they successfully managed to position themselves as obvious candidates to earn a ticket to Tokyo.
Since 2018, major training and coaching changes propelled them up the world rankings. They also passed all the requirements imposed by the Dutch Swimming Federation (KNZB) and the Dutch Olympic Committee/Dutch Sports Federation (NOC/NSF) to even be allowed to travel to the qualification tournament. But of course, COVID-19 had other plans.
Back in March, they did compete at the first, and ultimately only, leg of the Artistic Swimming World Series in Paris. Already, teams from Italy, Russia and Australia could not or would not travel to France with increasing chances of quarantine upon return, the implementation of strict restrictions across the world, and risks of infection looming above their heads.
The meet went on as normally as possible, and the pair finished fourth in technical duet, inching even closer to their direct rivals from the USA, who had beaten them for the last spot in finals at the World Championships a few months before.
The entire sporting calendar slowly crumbled once they returned to the Netherlands. The qualification tournament was first postponed to June. Some of the next few World Series meets were cancelled. The twins were advised to stay at home and could not access their pool anymore. But the Olympics were still scheduled for that summer, so they scurried to find solutions. They asked their friends and family if anybody had a backyard pool they could use, but their team manager insisted this was not an option. Eventually, the Games were postponed to 2021.
“In the beginning, we didn’t even know if we were happy or not,” Bregje said. “We were ready for it, so it was just sad that it was postponed to next year. But then after all, everybody is in the same situation and health is really important for the whole world.”
“And for us, one extra year is good, so we can be even better,” Noortje added.
For the next couple of weeks, they concentrated on their studies and followed the land-based training plan from their coach, Esther Jauma, which focused on stretching, conditioning and land drilling (the mimicking of a routine on land with hand and arm movements).
Everybody in the artistic swimming community was trying to adapt to going from seven to eight hours a day in the water to zero. Athletes turned to video calls for workouts, first within their own teams and eventually with others across the world.
“It was nice to see that every country was looking for solutions,” Noortje said.
“Everybody was looking for some ideas online, what we could do compared to a pool session and at home. It was really funny to see. I also really enjoyed the worldwide workout. It was really special to do it with the whole world. We were all together as one team, and not country against country.”
One of the most meaningful experiences for them during the lockdown was indeed taking part in the first-ever online worldwide workout on May 3. That day in a non-pandemic world, the 10 teams and 22 duets heading to Tokyo would have been finalised after four days of competition at the qualifiers. Instead, 34 elite athletes from most of the top nations, representing each of the five continents, gathered together in a Zoom call. Each showed a different exercise and the session was live streamed on YouTube. It was ultimately watched by over 34,000 people.
The sisters at the European Championships Glasgow 2018 © Getty Images
“It was more a gift to us to swim and enjoy”
Bregje and Noortje started artistic swimming at the age of four, following in the footsteps of their older sister. The coach noticed them and convinced their parents to let them try out because “twins are good for this sport”.
They made their first national team nine years later and went on to compete at multiple Junior World and Junior European Championships, as well as at the European Games in 2015. They made their senior debut at the 2017 World Championships in Budapest after placing fifth a few weeks earlier at their last Junior European Championships, the nation’s best finish in over 20 years.
“We only knew five weeks before that we could participate in the World Championships,” Noortje said. “At the beginning, [the federation] had told us that it was too early, so our goal was just the Junior Europeans. Finally, we had a call from our coach. You know, you’re always nervous when you get a call from a coach (laughs), so it had to be for something special if she calls us.”
“It was more a gift to us to swim and enjoy,” Bregje continued.
“We didn’t really have any goals and we didn’t know what to expect. It really was a surprise.”
After Budapest, nearly everything changed for them. Esther Jauma, who had been at the helm of Spain’s senior team for the previous four years, became their coach. They also moved to Hoofddorp, near Amsterdam, to take advantage of a more centralised and stable training system.
In the past, Bregje and Noortje lived at home in Goirle, in the south of the country, and managed a hectic and busy schedule. They trained every single day in different pools, sometimes a few hours away, and switched between a handful of coaches throughout the week.
“For two years, we were training almost every day with a different coach from the day before,” Bregje said. “We had a club coach, a national team coach, but also a technical coach, a conditioning coach etc. We had to adapt on how to work with one coach, and then coordinate with another coach the next day. Now we are with just one coach daily, so it’s definitely better.”
In barely one season with Jauma, they improved their scores by five points, an impressive feat in a sport where it usually takes a long time to do so and to shake up the hierarchy. When asked if they expected to improve so much so quickly, they answered “No!” in unison.
The twins at the FINA World Championships Budapest 2017 © Getty Images
“We don’t really talk about the Olympics with people”
Over the last few years, the KNZB has been setting baseline scores for the twins to reach before they could compete at major competitions like the European or the World Championships. For the Games, the NOC/NSF is in charge of setting these thresholds, in consultation with the KNZB, and all sports face the same sorts of prerequisites.
In the last two Olympic cycles, the NOC/NSF would send the Dutch duet only if it placed in the top 10, with no attention paid to the score or the fact that a final in artistic swimming has 12 nations. Nevertheless after a lot of discussion with Jauma, the NOC/NSF agreed instead to set a scoring baseline of 84.500.
Thanks to their recent progress, Bregje and Noortje cruised through the requirement at the 2019 European Cup, recording 86.000 in the free duet final. Now that this internal hurdle was passed, they could fully focus on the Gwangju World Championships and the Olympic qualifier.
In Gwangju, the twins knew what to expect this time around and had clear, realistic goals in mind. They jumped to 13th place in both duet events and were only 0.1 points away from the U.S. in 12th. They admit to being disappointed to miss a World final by so little, but they also saw that their dream of being amongst the 22 qualified duets for Tokyo was truly within reach.
To arrive at this elusive Olympic final, they know they must work hard on their weakness: artistic impression. Jauma would like the twins to develop their own style and to open up a bit more when it comes to expression and choreography.
“Sometimes, we have difficulties stepping out of our comfort zone,” Noortje said. “This is a big step that we can improve on, and it’s together with artistic impression in the water. We feel we have made a big step, but for Esther it’s still really shy and closed-off. For us, it’s already very open (laughs)!”
Bregje and Noortje are thankful to be able to focus on two routines only, allowing them to have the best chances of success for their Olympic dream. However, they unanimously agreed that they would love to be part of a team again.
At Gwangju 2019 © Getty Images
“The memories are even bigger and better [with a team],” Bregje said.
“You can really talk about your feelings about the competition with each other. Now it’s just only the two of us…”
“We mostly have the same feelings!” Noortje added, laughing.
“It’s not a lot to talk about,” Bregje continued.
“But we know that this is good for us and for our big goal for now. We are lucky to be together, for sure, and we are used to it now".
The twins are now mostly back to a normal training schedule. They have their sights set again on the qualification tournament in March, and hopefully an Olympic Games final afterwards. However, they don’t want to jinx themselves until they are actually qualified for Tokyo.
“We don’t really talk about the Olympics with people,” Bregje said. “First we want to qualify. Then, we will figure out if a final is possible and what we can do to get there.”
“We dream big, but we keep it for ourselves,” Noortje said, smiling.