Artistic swimmers hold their breath for the Olympics

Olympic hopefuls…Laura Strugnell, 31, from Century City and Jess Hayes-Hill, 30, from Plumstead.

They say that every little girl dreams of being a ballerina, and for Laura Strugnell, 31, from Century City, and Jess Hayes-Hill, 30, from Plumstead, this dream became a reality in an extraordinary way.

They combined dance with their love of water to pirouette their way into the sport of artistic swimming at the ages of 5 and 8 respectively.

Having trained for over two decades to perfect this graceful, athletic and demanding sport, the duet recently competed at the World Championships in Japan to secure South Africa a place at the Paris Summer Olympics in 2024. “We are both passionate about the sport and were thrilled to compete at the World Championships,” says Strugnell, “and then, to help secure South Africa a duet artistic swimming spot for the 2024 Olympics, was just incredible.”

“We feel particularly proud to be helping create awareness for this sport and it will be fantastic to have South Africa represented in Paris next year. But, more than that, we want to promote the sport, improve the standard and showcase SA’s talent on the world stage. Whether that’s us or another duet – the big prize is to have our flag flying in Paris next year.”

Artistic swimmers Laura Strugnell and Jess Hayes-Hill go through their paces a training session.

However, now the real hard work begins, not only for this duo but the other artistic swimming duets. They are training to compete in three competitions – locally and internationally – in December, February and March. “The qualification process ahead of the final selection by SA Swimming is extremely demanding,” said Strugnell. “It requires swimmers to compete three times in a very short season, which is unusual for elite athletes who usually peak maybe once or twice a year. But we all have to put the hard work in to reach our dreams.”

With their eye firmly on the Olympics, the duo is putting in the hours and, with limited or no funding for smaller sports, they balance their day jobs and over 28+ hours of training, in and out of the pool, every week.

When possible, they commute to Johannesburg to train with their head coach Vicky Drinkwater.

In Cape Town they are under the watchful eye of assistant coach, Tanya Gist, who ensures their training stays on track. Both coaches sponsor their coaching hours.

Laura Strugnell and Jess Hayes-Hill working on strength and endurance to execute perfect lifts.

‘We are so grateful to everyone who has helped us achieve what we have so far, given the financial constraints,’ says Hayes-Hill. ‘In the ideal world, we would train full time with our local coaches and an international coach in order to gain experience as a team and take that forward to the next generation.’

Artistic swimming, formerly known as water ballet or synchronised swimming, is possibly one of the most deceptive sports.

Behind the sequined costumes, smiles and make-up are athletes with incredible stamina, endurance, commitment and technical skill.

Routines require swimmers to hold their breath for long periods while treading water, sculling, twisting, pointing their toes, kicking, flipping, doing lifts and splits, mostly while upside down.

During a performance the swimmers complete some gravity-defying moves. Judging criteria means they are not allowed to touch the bottom or sides of the pool, even when lifting each other up and out of the water.

The sport was officially introduced at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, it was renamed Artistic Swimming in 2019 and a duet component was added at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

Next year men will compete for the first time as part of the group component – limited to two men in the team of 8.

Artistic swimming, previously known as water ballet or synchronised swimming, is all about teamwork and precision.

Strugnell comes from an aquatic family, her sisters were involved in the sport and she has competed at seven world championships. She also represented South Africa at the Olympic Games in Tokyo in 2021 as part of the first SA duet to participate at the games since 1992.

When not training for the Olympics, her days are spent in and around a pool as a swim coach. She also runs a learn to swim development programme in summer.

Hayes-Hill, originally from KZN, started her swimming career at age 8. She retired while studying to become an occupational therapist but came out of retirement to join Strugnell to fulfil their dream of competing at the Olympics, as well as helping to raise the profile of artistic swimming in South Africa.

Initially the two trained remotely – using a phone and tripod on the side of the pool – but Hayes-Hill relocated to Plumstead last year.

“One of the most commonly asked questions is about holding our breath,’ says Hayes-Hill. ‘Years of swimming pool lengths and doing breathing exercises has helped us build our lung capacity. But, due to the physical demands during a routine, we usually work on a 20 to 10 second split coming up for a quick breath between sequences.”

Part of the 28+ hour weekly training includes a mix of terra firma cross-training: Pilates, weights, strength conditioning, ballet, gymnastics and dance alongside pool time – swimming lengths, while learning and perfecting new techniques in the water.

One of the challenges is the size of swimming pools. “Fortunately we train at a wonderful facility at Curro School in Century City. However, the depth is only 2.2m which does limit some of our movements and, from time to time, I have bumped my head on the bottom during lifts,” laughs Hayes-Hill. The Olympic size pool for artistic swimming is 20m long by 20m wide and 3m deep.

Their initial childhood dream of being water ballerinas came true, the new dream is qualifying for the Olympics in 2024

Á BackaBuddy Fund has been created for the duo. “We want to thank our family, friends and others who have already made donations.”

If you’d like support them in their quest to qualify for Paris 2024 and to growing artistic swimming in SA, go to DreamBig2024.