Breaking barriers: These men are part of a global effort to modernize artistic swimming

Breaking barriers: These men are part of a global effort to modernize artistic swimming

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Robert Prévost and Isabelle Blanchet-Rampling strode to the edge of the swimming pool and struck a pose before diving in to perform an intricate dance of synchronized movements and acrobatic throws.

Watching from the stands above the pool was 13-year-old Christopher Niehaus, leaning forward in his seat, hands grasped between his knees, riveted by the mixed duets performing at the first artistic swimming World Cup of the season.

Niehaus had never seen men competing at this level before. Few people have, given how recently the gender barrier in this traditionally female sport has started coming down.

“They’re really good,” Niehaus said of Canada’s Prévost and the male athletes from half a dozen other countries who competed in solo, mixed duet and team events at the Markham Pan Am Centre from March 16 to 18. “I want to one day be like them.”

That is precisely why the 43-year-old Prévost came out of retirement for a second time: “I want to swim for the next generation of Canadian males.”

New era for artistic swimming

Artistic swimming is one of the only sports where the fight for gender equality is about including male athletes, and this is a groundbreaking time for men in the sport. Rule changes make it possible — not guaranteed, but possible — that men, for the first time, could compete with women in artistic swimming at the Olympics in Paris next year.

And a new scoring system should make the sport, long mired in controversial judging, fairer and more objective, another reason for Prévost’s return. He and Blanchet-Rampling won silver in Markham with a routine they started working on just three months ago. They hope it will take them to the podium at the world aquatics championships in July.

Asked what it felt like to be back competing, for the most part against athletes who are decades younger, Prévost grinned. “Hard. It’s very, very hard,” he said. “(But) I want to inspire guys to come to artistic swimming … I want 10 or 12 young men ready to compete.”

Niehaus, the Toronto teen, is well on his way. He started artistic swimming when he was seven, following his sister, and now he’s in Grade 8 at a sport-focused school so he can fit in daily high-performance training. The World Cup in Markham was his first opportunity to see in person what he might hope to achieve.

“The highlights (the moves above the water) looked so much higher, they looked more synchronized,” he said of watching from the stands instead of online. “It’s really cool.”

Niehaus’s trajectory is already quite different than many of the elite males in the sport. Prévost, for example, retired for the first time in his athletic prime at 20 because there were no opportunities, no national teams, no international events. But days after watching the World Cup, Niehaus was competing in that same pool at a national qualifying event, hoping to represent Canada at the youth world championships in Greece in August.

He is still the only male on the high-performance team of 25 athletes at the Olympium Artistic Swimming Club, though there are a half-dozen at lower levels and in the club’s recreation stream.

“It’s kind of sad,” Niehaus said. “But it’s still fun. I just wish I had somebody who is like me, who is a guy and at the same skill level.”

When Italy’s Giorgio Minisini, the reigning mixed duet world champion and one of the sport’s strongest male advocates, took to the pool in Markham for his solo free routine, it was to a version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”

The choice of song was in part a celebration of men being allowed in the Olympics, the 27-year-old said. “In Italy we have plenty of guys doing artistic swimming and for some years I’ve had this fear that I was bringing them into a sport that would prevent them from competing at the Olympics … now they can follow their dreams.”

And possibly he can, too. “I don’t know if I will go (to Paris), I have to earn my spot on the team, but I can dream about it.”

What this means for Paris 2024

As with most things related to the Olympics, it’s complicated. The International Olympic Committee did not include mixed duets, the event men have been competing in at the world level since 2015, for the Paris Olympics. That would have required more athlete quota spots — a juggling act across all sports — than were made available.

So this initial move toward gender equality is a rule change that allows up to two males on the eight-person artistic swimming teams at the 2024 Summer Games. And that’s a far different bar for men than mixed duets, an event that was designed for them.

Athletes chosen for the teams must swim in three different events — technical, free and the new acrobatic routine — to win an Olympic medal. And, generally, men who haven’t had the same opportunities, funding and support are not at the same technical level as the top women.

That makes this method of Olympic inclusion for men “a tricky question,” said Belgium’s Renaud Barral.

“It’s progress, I can’t deny that and it’s important that it’s moving forward. But what guy is able to compete in the team with the rest of the girls? In many countries, it’s a risky bet, I would say.”

Sport is embracing the change

Those involved in changing the sport in the water and through the rules and officiating would certainly like to see it happen. They believe it would help refresh and modernize the sport.

“The community is ready to change,” said Lisa Schott, chair of the World Aquatics artistic swimming technical committee, which delivered the judging system overhaul. “For the athletes, gender is not a big thing for them — they’re just like, bring them in, it’s fun and let’s see what we can do with each other. Of course, we’ve had to all of a sudden get male dressing rooms and male anti-doping. We hadn’t thought about all that.”

Whether any men make it on the teams for Paris may depend on the strategies the new scoring system allows. A team might be willing to risk losing a little in the technical event if it means gaining even more in the acrobatic routine, where the additional strength of a male athlete or two could contribute to more impressive throws out of the water.

And this may be a short-term concern. Niehaus is already competing in the team event and, according to the coach, is at the same skill level as his female counterparts. That makes him part of a new generation of pioneers in the sport, as important to its future as those who have brought it this far.

Kerry Gillespie is a Toronto-based sports reporter for the Star. Reach her via email: [email protected]

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