As the Olympics approach, the pool’s most stylish sport is in the spotlight. RACHEL JONES looks at the world of synchronised swimming
As Caitlin Ahern rises smiling and straight-backed from the water, she is the picture of grace, charm and perfect posture.
So it’s hard to believe that her legs are working furiously beneath the pool surface in an exhausting swimming technique known as eggbeater.
And as she lifts, tumbles, curls and unfurls her body in a seemingly effortless style, it’s equally surprising to learn she’s recently recovered from a serious back injury.
Caitlin perfectly represents, both physically and mentally, the strength, stamina and resolve associated with the elegant but tough world of synchronised swimming.
A rising synchro star, the Fareham teenager’s poise and graceful movements mean minimum splash in the water, but she has certainly been making waves on the competition scene.
But in October 2010, Caitlin slipped at school and hurt her back. Her injuries were so bad a specialist told the 16-year-old and her mum Lynn that he’d seen less damage to people who’d fallen from a height.
That meant a lot of pain and time out of the pool for the member of Portsmouth Victoria Synchronised Swimming Club, who had regularly been putting in about 20 hours of training a week.
But this year she glided back onto the competition scene to win a trophy for endeavour and the chance to train with the national junior team.
‘This is something I love, I really enjoy it. So I think that made me determined to overcome my injuries. I didn’t want that to be the reason I couldn’t do this any more,’ says Caitlin, taking a break from a club training session and lesson at Horizon Leisure Centre, Waterlooville.
And mum Lynn adds: ‘There have been a lot of tears and agony but she has pushed through. We’re very proud of her.’
Caitlin recently won the Gemma Yates Trophy for Endeavour, an award in memory of Gemma Yates who represented England but sadly died at 16. She also won a place training with GB juniors after impressive performances at Nationals and British Championships.
The 16-year-old has had a challenging time in an already tough sport.
As she practises with 13-year-old Robyn Stanhope, another star of the club, the skill, strength and flexibility required for routines becomes apparent.
The pair hold their bodies at a 45-degree angle with their legs, performing leg cross-overs and travelling through the water at exactly the same speed and distance.
They keep the sort of position that has lesser women and girls sweating and trembling in pilates classes, but there is no floor to hold them up and they must keep themselves steady against the current.
The club’s head coach, Helen Morris, explains the challenges. ‘In synchronised swimming, you’re trying to be like a swan. It needs to look easy and graceful out of the water, but all the hard work is going on underneath.’
The eggbeater is a method of treading water used in synchronised swimming and water polo. It allows swimmers to lift themselves above the surface, sometimes up to their hips. And while performing this feat of core strength and control, synchronised swimmers must remember to express themselves facially to the music.
Nevertheless, synchro has met with mixed reactions over the years, with some scorning the artistic nature of the displays. But Helen says that, while competitors glam up for routines, it’s more about muscle-power than mascara.
‘I think it’s because it looks pretty and in the past perhaps the emphasis has been on the aesthetically-pleasing side. But we’ve come a long way since the days of flowery caps. I think the image is changing and people are realising how technical and difficult it is,’ she says.
As it is an Olympic sport, Helen hopes attitudes will change further and there have already been some benefits on the road to London 2012. The GB team have been making vast improvements and the sport is receiving more funding at grass roots level. Already it is attracting more newcomers.
Synchronised swimming is a mixture of the technical and artistic. Competitors, who perform solos, duets or team routines, are marked for control, stability, height, extension and positioning, as well as style. And then there are the lifts and the throws that see teams balancing and lifting each other from the water.
Admittedly it’s a visual and stylish sport – costumes and music (audible to competitors thanks to underwater speakers) are a big part of the scene, as is make-up. Girls soon learn to go for the best waterproof stuff, explains Helen. No Alice Coopers emerging from the
pool in synchronised swimming.
The last thing competitors want to be worrying about is their eyeliner. In addition to other challenging elements, there’s breathing (or lack of it) to consider.
‘It’s a bit like sprinting on a treadmill for four minutes but not being able to breathe every couple of seconds,’ says Helen.
‘And you’re exercising but the oxygen to your muscles is restricted, so it ends up hurting quite a bit.’
The club is doing well at the moment, with several girls selected to train at regional and national levels. Caitlin’s current ranking is sixth in her age group nationally.
At the other end of the scale are the girls who are just starting out, like nine-year-old Holly Linford. She’s just started learning but synchro is already improving her swimming and giving her a challenge. Like many of the girls, Holly comes from a gymnastics and dance background. Although this isn’t essential for synchro swimmers starting out, it does give them an advantage.
Helen’s appointment as head coach is a result of funding programmes from the Amateur Swimming Association and Sport England. Helen used to be part of GB squad and competed at the 2009 World Championships.
Her success is something to which the girls in the pool, who range from beginners to competitive swimmers, can aspire.
But it isn’t all about competition.There are girls who attend sessions for fun and there is even an adults’ class.
‘It’s great for core strength, flexibility and fitness, says Helen.
‘People who come soon realise how difficult it must be for serious competitors.’
What’s currently missing is boys and men. While they aren’t barred from the club or some competitions, men can’t compete in Olympic or World Championship synchronised swimming.
Helen says: ‘I think it’s just a case of there not being enough men to compete against each other, so it’s difficult. Perhaps that will change’
Meanwhile the girls in the pool get on with improving their beautifully-timed mirrored movements under Helen’s experienced eye.
To see a video of the synchronised swimmers, go to portsmouth.co.uk/video