Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Not afraid to be unique

Only boy in synchro swimming pool loving every minute of it

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Joseph Meakin is an island in a sea of girls. Make that a pool, actually.

The 11-year-old was the only participant in the 2011 MASY Challenge at the Pan Am Pool over the weekend with a Y chromosome in his genetic makeup. The rest of the 207 synchronized swimmers had nothing by X's. But the seven-year veteran from the Orca Synchro Club in Saskatoon isn't fazed by the lack of testosterone around him.

"I like the challenge of synchro," he said. "I like to design routines and I enjoy swimming to the music."

While a member of a distinct minority, Meakin is hardly discriminated against. In fact, the only synchro competition in which boys aren't allowed to participate is the Olympics.

His coach said because he's been at it for so long, he feels like just another swimmer most of the time but she admits it can be difficult to fit in on occasion.

"The older girls love him because he's so cute," said Crystal, who asked that her last name not be used. "They're like big sisters to him. They take him under their wings."

And because he's the only boy, she said synchro swimmers across Saskatchewan cheer for him whenever he gets in the pool. There was plenty to celebrate on the weekend as Meakin placed first in the under-12 figures (a competition of compulsory moves), up from 28th last year, and fifth in the under-12 solo competition.

Khadija Cutcher, head coach of the Aquatica Synchro Club in Winnipeg, said in her 30 years in the sport, she has only come across a small handful of boys, say about 10, compared to thousands of girls. She said boys are attracted to synchro the same way they are to gymnastics or figure skating.

"They have a love of performing to music and acrobatics. And they love the water," she said.

For the uninitiated, Cutcher said synchro combines the athleticism of swimming, diving, water polo, rhythmic gymnastics and ballet while requiring flexibility, agility, speed and power.

"Plus you're doing it upside down while holding your breath. It's a very technical sport," she said.

Team competitions can be particularly tricky because swimmers have to keep their formation and monitor their teammates underwater without using goggles.

Synchro swimmers participate in five events -- figures, solo, duet and team as well as combination, which incorporates the latter three.

There were about 30 athletes from Manitoba participating at MASY this year, including a few from Thunder Bay, who are included in the Manitoba numbers. MASY, which stands for Manitoba, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Yukon, is the top competition of the year for provincial team athletes.

There are about 200 synchro swimmers in the province, a total that is growing slowly, Cutcher said.

"We do outreach programs, presentations at schools and demonstrations at pools (to attract new recruits)," she said.

One major difference between synchro and most other sports is it's done with a smile on your face, she said.

"We're supposed to make it look easy. We don't look like marathoners or hockey players," she said, scrunching her face up and grimacing.

Being able to hold your breath is obviously a prerequisite for the sport but doing so is much more difficult near the end of a routine, she said.

"You're not sitting on the bottom of the pool. You're doing all these crazy manoeuvres," she said.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 16, 2011 C6

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