At the last Summer Olympics, those in Tokyo, there were only two disciplines reserved for women: rhythmic gymnastics and artistic swimming, as what many continue to refer to as synchronized swimming has been officially called for some years now. At the next, net of certain races or distances only for men or only for women, the only all-female discipline will be rhythmic gymnastics. On 22 December, the IOC, the International Olympic Committee, has approved in fact the request, made by World Aquatics (the international swimming federation, until recently known as FINA), to also admit males to the Olympic team competitions of the 2024 Paris Olympics.
In Paris, artistic swimming will award medals in two events: the pair competition known as a duo and the team event, with teams made up of eight members plus a reserve. The IOC has decided that the duo will remain all female but that in the team event each team will be able to have up to a maximum of two male artistic swimmers. The team event will therefore become a mixed event, in which males and females will be able to compete together.
As explained by Nicolò Ogliari, a twenty-four year old artistic swimmer, winner of two European bronze medals, it is however not certain that Italy, whose team is among the best in the world, will be in Paris with one or even two male swimmers, because «the team with one or two male members is a new thing’ that few countries are prepared for. For Ogliari the recent decision of the IOC “represents a big step forward”, he adds however that the Paris Olympics are now less than a year and a half away and Italy, like other countries, may not find the way and the time to ” team up» male athletes. “It will still be up to our coach to decide,” says Ogliari.
Aquatic displays, often female and in many cases done in groups and choreographed, have been around since at least ancient Roman times. In the 1940s and 1950s, what in the meantime was known as “water ballet” gained great popularity through cinema: a specific sub-genre was born and flourished, the aquatic musical, whose main representative was the swimmer and actress Esther Williamswho died in 2013 and was rumored to be a diva, but only in the water.
Starting from the second half of the 20th century, aquatic ballet became a sport to all intents and purposes. In 1968 it was included in the FINA disciplines alongside swimming, trampoline diving and water polo, and in 1984 it made its Olympic debut at the Los Angeles Games, where there were two all-female events: one in pairs and one in singles. In synchronized swimming there were unique competitions because the adjective “synchronized” did not refer to being synchronized with other swimmers (and now also other swimmers) but to being synchronized with the music in the background.
It’s part of the reason why, reportedly under pressure from the IOC, the sport changed its name to artistic swimming in 2017: a choice made to associate the practice with that of artistic gymnastics and in an attempt to make it more popular. But also a choice that many did not like, because they believed that doing so did not highlight the fact that this is certainly an artistic sport but also quite challenging, with frequent concussions and strong underwater blows, which in addition to being particularly muscular also requires that you often have to make great efforts holding your breath.
However, the change of name from “synchronized swimming” to “artistic swimming” was not always and wholly accepted, given that even today many federations, including the Italian one, continue to talk often and willingly about synchronized swimming, and in the same way they sometimes go on to be defined as “synchronous” the artistic swimmers.
Whatever you call it, it is still a fact that up until the early 1990s even the idea that males could compete in synchronized swimming was considered implausible and remote, something to be laughed about. Just like in 1984 he made a long Saturday Night Live sketch, in a parody of those stories of sportsmen with a big dream and many obstacles to overcome: one of the two protagonists of the video was in fact an aspiring synchronized swimmer who, however, did not know how to swim.
In Italy, however, a shorter reference was made in a film released twenty-five years ago.
Only in 1998, the year after the release of Three men and a leg, there were the first international synchronized swimming competitions with male athletes. Instead, it was in 2015 that, following a decision by FINA, two mixed trials made their debut in the synchronized swimming trials at the World Championships, with teams made up of one male and one female and with athletic dynamics similar to those of pairs skating.
At the 2022 World Cup, Italy won gold in both in the mixed duo, which is divided into free program and technical program, thanks to the duo made up of Lucrezia Ruggiero and Giorgio Minisini, who is 26 years old and is among the best in the world . Also at the World Championships, the women’s team also obtained a bronze and two silvers.
At the European Championships, organized in Rome in August, the mixed competitions were joined for the first time by the men’s singles competitions, both won by Minisini, who he performed also with the Paralympic athlete Arianna Sacripante. Before that, again in 2022, there had been the Italian championships winter and summerin which eight and nine athletes took part in the men’s singles, the youngest of whom were born in 2007.
When Minisini is in the race, not only in Italy, he almost always wins. The son of a former synchronized swimmer and an international judge, he has been swimming since before he was called that, having tried taekwondo and water polo. Interviewed a few months ago by Fridaywhen he still said he hoped to be able to compete in the Olympics, but only in those of 2028 in Los Angeles, had told who decided to take up this sport after seeing a performance by the American Bill May, who is now a forty-three-year-old coach and who was the pioneer of men’s synchronized swimming.
May began synchronized swimming after seeing her sister’s workouts and starting to participate in them. Not being foreseen at the male level, however, there were not many international competitions in which she was able to participate. When in 2015, more than ten years after his retirement, mixed competitions were included in the World Championships program, he returned to competition and became the first man to win, together with his partner Christina Jones, a world gold. After learning that males will also be able to compete in the Olympics, May said that “an impossible dream has come true”.
Ogliari, on the other hand, came to synchronized swimming by chance, after having practiced competitive swimming in lanes up to the age of eighteen. «By chance» he recalls «at a competition there was a synchronized swimming team looking for a male: I did a test and since I put my head under water I fell in love with this sport». The team was looking for a male for the mixed duo competitions, the ones that in those years were establishing themselves, and the ones that Ogliari said many expected would become Olympic.
Given his history in swimming, Ogliari says that the most difficult part was «adding flexibility and artistry to strength» and that at the beginning it was «really very difficult even to take the simplest positions». He recalls when he happened to participate in competitions with just a handful of mixed couples (a colleague of his spoke of “empty podium syndrome”), but says that at the next Italian championships he already expects to see at least ten male athletes, maybe even more.
Meanwhile, every day of his includes at least four or five hours of swimming, which in the case of training with the national team can even become seven or eight. In his workouts, swimming normal they follow «specific swimming with synchronized swimming exercise [lui preferisce chiamarlo così] on resistance, a part of technique, a part dedicated to ballet» and then, once out of the water, «gym, weights, strengthening exercises» and, often, «rhythmic gymnastic sessions to improve stretching and elasticity».
By the way, Rhythmic Gymnastics remains the only sport in the Summer Olympics where boys are not allowed to participate, and in which, even at lower levels, the space for boys is practically non-existent in most countries and federations. Similarly, in the Winter Olympics there is the Nordic combined, a combination of ski jumping and cross-country skiing, which is a men’s only discipline.
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