Training Camp in Torremolinos
Training Camp in Torremolinos
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At the Queen Mother Sports Centre in the heart of London, a group of medal-winning athletes is training for one of the most demanding Olympic competitions– synchronized swimming.
Their sport requires precision, teamwork and stamina.
But no matter how hard they train, no matter how good they are, this team isn’t welcome at the 2012 Summer Games, for one simple reason: They’re men.
Synchronized swimming was first demonstrated at the Olympics in 1952, and didn’t become an official sport until 1984, but then it was only opened to female teams.
The Out To Swim Angels are Britain’s only male synchronized swimming team. Last month they wrote a letter to the International Olympic Committee and FINA, swimming’s governing body, arguing that men deserve to compete in synchronized swimming as well.
“There’s still this same of sort old mindset. Oh well it’s pretty, it’s for girls,” said team member Ronan Daly. “But no, we want to challenge that and say boys can do this as well.”
These guys are not the first. Californian Kenyon Smith was one of best synchronized swimmers in the world, when he was blocked out from entering the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. Four years earlier, Bill May, who won several awards swimming with women, was barred from the 2004 Olympics in Athens.
Now these Brits say enough is enough. In their letter to the IOC, they’re asking that the rules be changed in time for the Summer Games in Rio in 2016.
“I think it’s incredibly ironic that the Olympics are all about equality, yet we don’t have a chance to compete, and other mens’ teams don’t have a chance to participate,” said team captain Stephen Adshead.
Synchronized swimming was glamorized by actress and professional swimmer Esther Williams in the 1940s and early 1950s. In the 1980s, comedians Martin Short and Harry Shearer poked fun at the idea of men competing in the sport on Saturday Night Live.
The Out To Swim Angels said to get the public to take them seriously, all they need to do is demonstrate their routine. The swimmers never touch the bottom of the pool, and their moves require incredible core strength.
The team was created three years ago and is coached by Sanela Nikolic, a former Yugoslav champion. Last year they brought home a gold medal from the Eurogames in Rotterdam.
Along with the battle for acceptance, Adshead says the team is also fighting to stay afloat financially, since renting time at the local swimming pool can be costly.
Still, the team promises to keep kicking, to get the Olympic Committee to recognize that men can compete just as well as women in this challenging sport.
“We need the younger people to do this, to encourage kids to get involved in synchro,” said team member George Gardiner. “We need to build up the talent, train hard and hopefully we’ll see guys doing Olympic level synchro in a few years time.”
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At a central London sports centre, six hairy legs emerge from a swimming pool in time to a beat before coquettishly disappearing again. This is Britain’s only men’s synchronised swimming team – the Out to Swim Angels – and they want to know why men are barred from the sport at the Olympics.
The group of men in sequinned trunks has set out to disprove claims that this year’s Olympic Games has broken down the last bastion of sporting sexism. London 2012 organisers claimed this would be the first Games which made all sports available to men and women, but the Angels disagree. Men are still barred from competing in synchronised swimming, despite the fact that members of the team have won international events at the highest level.
Last year the Angels took home a gold medal at the Eurogames in Rotterdam, but they want the next generation to have a chance at Olympic glory. Richard Snow, 34, an interior designer and founder member of the team, said: “Originally there weren’t many sports women could compete in, so having synchro for women only was about letting them have more sports [of their own]. But times have moved on and the rules should be reversed. I feel sad that men can’t compete. Bit by bit we hope we can break down the barrier for men. Hopefully that will mean teams start including boys from a young age.”
America has twice seen men succeed in international contests only to be knocked back for Olympic qualification because it is a women-only sport. Californian Kenyon Smith was one of the most accomplished synchronised swimmers in the US ahead of the 2008 Games in Beijing, but he was barred from entering. Four years earlier Bill May, who had won many awards and competitions in duo performances with women – including the 2000 Grand Slam – was barred from the 2004 Olympics in Athens because of his gender.
In Britain, men’s synchro lags behind. When the Angels began training in 2010, they had to progress through the same entry-level examinations that young girls pursue to get swimming badges. Mr Snow said: “There was this line of seven-year-old girls and then next to them this 6ft hairy guy. We felt very silly.”
Founded in 2010 as part of Out to Swim, a gay swimming club based at the Queen Mother Sports Centre in Victoria in London, the team has become accomplished quickly. Under the tough tutelage of Sanela Nikolic, a former Yugoslav champion who also competed for the UK, they now hope to enter women’s contests. Tapping a beat out on the pool ladder, Ms Nikolic, 39, barks out rhythms and instructions: “Five, six, seven, eight… Point your toes Emmanuel!” The men kick their legs obediently, dive under water and pull each other around by the ankles in an increasingly complex routine.
In training, the team wear standard trunks, but for competitions they have specially adapted pants with sequinned angel wings on the back. Their next competitive swim is against a men’s team in Paris at the end of this month.
Ms Nikolic believes that the time has come for men’s synchro to be accepted. “In this modern world, it is time to move beyond the arbitrary preconceptions we have of certain types of sport,” she said. “Synchronised swimming is one of the last few examples of a discipline not open to both men and women. A whole generation of athletes needs to be created to compete at Olympic level, and this will take time. It may need to start out as a demonstration sport to raise its profile, but the issue of placing rather arbitrary gender restrictions on Olympic sports must be challenged.”
Derde Exposito, 32, who is originally from Cuba, is the club’s star. “Synchronised swimming for men is quite common in Cuba; they call it aquatic ballet. My favourite move is the ‘ballet leg’, where you stick your leg out of the water. It’s the most stylish.”
Ronan Daly, no relation to the similarly surnamed diver, is the tallest and burliest of the team. Standing at 6ft 4ins and beginning to show his 45 years, the gardener confessed: “Most people can’t believe I do it, but it’s great fun. I told my partner as a joke that the only time I’d consider swimming was if the club did synchro, then when they started doing it I had to give it a go.”