Equality in British sport has come a long way. The gender gap has been gradually closed over the last century to allow athletes of both sexes to compete on a level playing field. It is not without irony, therefore, that men are now the ones battling the same discrimination and prejudice in synchronised swimming that women fought and overcame in traditionally male disciplines such as boxing or weightlifting.
The OTS Angels has been making a splash since 2009 as the UK’s only male synchronised swimming club and is campaigning for the sport to be taken seriously both at home and internationally, last year speaking out against the Olympics’ continued refusal to allow men to compete in the Games. Originally formed by five gay men, the club has now grown to include around 20 members. Watching them in London’s Queen Mother Sports Centre, it’s clear the men’s natural strength injects an electrifying power into the routines – but can male synchronised swimming really be anything more than a niche interest? Are women simply anatomically more suited to perfecting the sport’s mixture of graceful form, movement and balance?
While men may have fewer issues pulling off a difficult lift or throw, what really separates the boys from the girls is buoyancy and sculling technique, explains the Angels’ coach, Sanela Nikolic.
“Women pick up synchronised swimming easier than men because men have more muscle mass and are heavier. So that can be an issue from the start,” she says. But the UK synchronised swimming judge, who swam nationally and internationally for the former Yugoslavia, adds that despite the physical differences men are just as capable of achieving the correct technique, and routines are adapted to play to swimmers’ strengths. While women tend to look more graceful, men go more for the routines which are a bit sharper and have different angles. They wouldn’t necessarily go for the more feminine moves, but it’s a personal choice dependent on the music.
Former Cuban triathlete Derde Exposito, one of the Angels’ more advanced members, was inspired to start practising synchronised swimming after watching the women’s team train during his own pool sessions back home. He believes the male body’s inherent strength gives men an edge in the sport – but warns newcomers to beware: the challenges for even an accomplished swimmer are immense.
“We have to remember that we are in an environment that is not ours: the water,” he says.
“I have practised several sports during the course of my life and this is probably the toughest one. When you are inside the water you are not just swimming, you actually have to think about the other guys around you, you have to count, you have to breathe.”
Swimmers are required to hold their breath for long periods underwater – a skill that beginner James Hotson found the most difficult to master. Warmups include swimming two submerged lengths of a full-sized pool without taking a breath. On a good day, James says, he can manage around half that distance. Factor in a complicated routine performed in time to music and suddenly the bar is raised even higher.
He explains: “When you’re upside down and slightly disorientated, your legs are doing one thing and your arms are doing another – all while you’re holding your breath. Sometimes I find that, even when I come up, I forget to breathe and I’m back into the next move. So everything then falls apart as a result.”
Male synchronised swimming may be just beginning to take off in the UK, but there’s still a long way to go before it is established enough to be accepted at the Olympics and World Championships. James believes a first step to raising its profile could be to enter as a demonstration sport at the Games.
Real grassroots change, however, will come when there’s interest at a younger age.
“Some kids are pushed to ballet school when they’re young and the image of that has now changed thanks to films such as Billy Elliot,” he says. “A similar change is needed in synchronised swimming really.”
• The OTS Angels train at the Queen Mother Sports Centre every Sunday at 5.45pm and Monday at 7pm. The club also runs a monthly beginners session.
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