In what has been an unusual occurrence, the Artistic Swimming community has been treated to both the FINA World Youth and FINA World Junior Championships in the same month as well as the same year. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, FINA alternated these two events each year. The 2nd edition of the Youth event, originally scheduled for 2021, took place a few weeks ago in Charlotte, North Carolina USA. However, after several postponements since the original 2020 date, Quebec City, Canada is finally hosting the 17th edition of the World Junior Championships.
There are always special moments at FINA World Championships, remarkable accomplishments, history-making performances, and noteworthy stories that capture the audience and increase the excitement of the event. Coming out of Japan, Moe Higa is the latest sensation to rock the Artistic Swimming world and is leaving her mark on the sport with impressive performances and results that will be difficult to surpass.
Born in 2007, fourteen-year-old Higa is eligible to compete as one of the youngest athletes at the Juniors in Quebec City, yet she was one of the oldest in Charlotte, NC at the Youth Championships. However, the list of FINA World championships does not stop there.
Earlier this year, Higa became the youngest Artistic Swimming athlete to have represented Japan at a Senior World Championship, when she competed at the 19th FINA World Championships in Budapest in the Technical Duet, Technical, Free, and Free Combination Team events.
Showing her true age Higa did not realize this awe-inspiring feat: “I had no idea, I just take it all one step at a time, one competition after one competition, trying to improve each time I swim.”
Although participation at all three Artistic Swimming World events in one year is worthy of attention, Higa’s accomplishments earned her multiple medals from each of the three events. At Worlds in Budapest, Higa and her teammates won two silver and one bronze medal in the Team events, while she finished just off the podium, in fourth, with her duet partner.
At the FINA World Youth Championships Higa topped the podium in the Figures, Free Solo, and Mixed Team Free Combination events. From Charlotte, USA Higa travelled to Quebec City where she has already added one more gold medal to her 2022 FINA World Championship collection. At the Junior Worlds, it was the first time for Higa to compete in a Technical Solo event.
Although the score received, 88.4438, was more than three points ahead of the silver medalist, Italian Susanna Pedotti, Moe admitted to being very nervous, “This was my first time swimming a Technical Solo, all I was thinking about is to catch the audience and judges, but I don’t know if I did, because of my nerves.”
Higa will be swimming in the finals of the Solo Free event for another chance at the podium. In Charlotte, Higa scored 82.6000 for her Free routine “Strange Story”, but in the preliminary round in Quebec, she received 89.2000, almost three points ahead of the rest of the field, making gold number five almost a doen deal.
This quite demanding competition and travel schedule could be a challenge for the most experienced of elite athletes, but at almost fifteen Higa is just a kid. She shared that she does miss home a lot, but “I miss my own bed the most.” When asked what she likes the most and the least about Artistic Swimming, Higa was quick to reply “I like being in the spotlight, swimming the solo, but I do not like to hold my breath”
While Moe Higa’s talent is amazing and her performances breathtaking, the other buzz on the pool deck involves the increased participation of the male athletes in the Championships. FINA has added the Male Solo event to the program at both the Youth and Junior Championships, while also changing the Team Combination event to allow each Team to include up to two male athletes.
The addition of the Male Solo events produced first-ever FINA World Champions. In Charlotte, France’s Lucas Valliccioni earned the title by winning the Male Free Solo event, while Dennis Gonzalez Boneu from Spain is leaving Quebec City with two firsts, the Solo Technical and the Solo Free World Champion. Gonzalez Boneu, after winning his first gold medal:
“Over the last few years, there has been an increase in the number of Male participants in my competitions. That is making me very nervous, because obviously it is becoming more competitive. But it is also making me very proud, because I am now competing against males instead of females. I don’t have to compare myself to the females anymore.”
FINA Youth World Champion Valliccioni, happy with the opportunity to compete as a soloist against other males, added: “We add a different way of swimming routines, not only mentally, but also because of our physical differences.”
A bronze medalist in 2012 and silver medalist in 2014 at World Junior Championships, Canadian Olympian Jacqueline Simoneau has been in the sport for more than fifteen years. Simoneau, one of the live broadcast commentators for the 2022 Quebec event, has been enjoying the male events as well as the addition of the male athletes in the Team Free Combination events.
“Males have the opportunity to bring a different dimension to the sport. They are able to provide a lot more power, and sometimes even more speed. It was really shown in the Mixed Combo event where several teams had one or two male athletes as part of their ten athletes. This is only the beginning; we have a long way to go for the males in Artistic Swimming can reach their fullest potential.”
Artistic Swimming Male athlete pioneer Bill May has been lobbying for the addition of males to the sport.
“It will add a new dynamic, the overall look will be different. We are not there to be compared to the females, we are definitely different, we have different swimsuits, different styles, different body tones, it will add to the team. We may be different, but we will complement the females very well. I think we will adding a new layer, a new power, not better or worse, just different, adding to the overall effect of the Team.”
Simoneau and May’s remarks are easily supported by the results of the Mixed Team Free Combo event in Quebec. Gold medalist Team Japan included Yotaro Sato, who besides being a two-time World silver medalist in the Mixed Duet events with his sister Tomoka Sato already has claimed a gold in the Mixed Duet Technical event and a silver each in the Solo Technical and Solo Free events in Quebec. The silver medal earned by Team Spain included freshly crowned solist Gonzalez Boneu.
The difference between Japan’s score, 89.1667 points and the score Spain received, 88.5000 was very small but the difference with third place Italy, whose Team did not include any male athletes was significantly larger.
In talking to the Male Artistic Swimming athletes, one thing is very clear they are here to stay. They are also very outspoken about the needs that they have for themselves to continue growing as individuals and as athletes, and the difficulties they face as male athletes in a predominantly female sport.
Brazil’s Murillo Da Cunha: “Often the rumors, the “fake news” about males in Artistic Swimming is making it difficult, but we, all the male participants are changing that, We are doing our best in the pool to change history and to make the sport better.”
USA’s Kenneth Gaudet: “Being alone, there is not that many of us, we get outnumbered by the girls. We deal with insecurities about being in the minority. I do have the resources to deal with that and am super supported by my team, USA. We need a world stage, the world platform, if we get the exposure, we can change the numbers.”
Bill May was recently selected to serve on the FINA Athletes Committee for the next cycle. This will give him an additional platform to bring attention to the difficulties and differences regarding the male athletes in the sport pointed out by Da Cunha and Gaudett.
“It is hard for the men, they are worried about being accepted by their friends, their family, their coaches. It is good to share the message that we are not here to be compared to the females, we are leaving our own footprint on the sport. It is very important for the role models, the leaders in Aquatics, to nurture the male athletes. Let the athletes know that there is a future, the sport is growing with the males included.”
One thing the males all agree on is the inclusion of males in the existing events and the inclusion of all male events at the Olympic Games. May made his first appearance in an International Competition in 1998 at the Goodwill Games. In his opinion, the inclusion of the males in Artistic Swimming is making progress faster than the development of Esther Williams’ water ballet to the first inclusion of competitive Synchronized Swimming to the Olympic Games in 1984.
Bill May: “The more we can provide a future for the male athletes in the sport, providing them with competition opportunities as a separate positive entity in the sport, the more they will feel included. Now that there are more competition opportunities, we need to let them know that there is a future for them in the sport, that they are accepted, that people are rooting for them, pushing for them and loving them in the sport, as their own separate personality in the sport. That is going to help them stay involved in the sport.”
Great Britain’s RanjuoTomblin: “ I would like to see more males in the Teams, like half and a half or an all-male team event.”
USA’s Michael Chan: “I am helping the change by inspiring other young boys to do Artistic Swimming. I think that if the inclusion can also happen at the collegiate level it will help to keep the males involved in the sport. There needs to be future opportunities at higher levels to inspire males to get involved.”
FINA’s World Youth and Junior Championships have been the occasion for history-making moments. Moe Higa’s successes at the three different World events in one single year most likely will never be repeated. Similarly, all male athletes have an opportunity to play a significant role in the changes the sport of Artistic Swimming is experiencing. The future is here.