When it came to supporting his daughters’ aquatic dreams, Christian Gosselin was willing to do whatever it took — even if that meant taking the plunge, kicking up his feet, and going where relatively few dads have gone before.
Now, after two months of practice and with their first big public performance only weeks away, Gosselin and 10 other men are making waves — and, perhaps, getting their own delightful footnote in history — as Manitoba’s only men’s synchronized swimming team.
The squad came together in late January, after Gosselin fired off an email to other Aquatica Synchro Club parents. With the club celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, he wanted to do something unique; he hoped at least one other dad might be interested in teaming up to perform at Aquatica’s year-end watershow on May 25.
"It was an idea that came up for the 10th anniversary of the club, trying to get boys into the sport and trying to support my daughters, so this checked all the boxes," says Gosselin, whose daughters Chloé, 9, and Calla, 12, are actively involved in the Aquatica program.
As it turned out, Gosselin wasn’t the only one curious to try it out. Before long, 11 guys had signed up, including nine dads and two men whose wives are involved with the sport. The group committed to weekly hour-long practices at Pan Am Pool, and to developing a 90-second routine that would, hopefully, dazzle the watershow crowd.
"I was really surprised, I wasn’t expecting that at all," Gosselin says, of the eager response.
He’s not the only one. In 20 years in the sport, Aquatica head coach Holly Hjartarson had never seen anything like it. She’s seen dads try out synchronized swimming before, when the club holds its bring-a-parent days. So she was delighted when the crew swelled to a full team, and started choreographing a dramatic routine.
"It’s been really fun, and a big learning curve," Hjartarson says, chatting before putting the team through its paces at Pan Am Pool on Saturday afternoon. "It’s much different coaching adult men than it is coaching kids... They all realized by day one that it was a lot harder than they thought it was going to be."
The team’s first practices were, to be honest, not exactly poetry in motion. Guys went underwater and came back up spluttering mouthfuls of water, having learned the hard way that their daughters’ nose clips were too small; their attempts at gracefully gliding into poses were more floundering chaos than fluid elegance.
"The hardest part is when you’re upside down," says Trevor Wilcox, whose daughter Nelaya, 12, trains as a duo with Gosselin’s daughter Calla. "I can’t figure out which way to come up. You don’t know which way to turn, and you get completely disoriented in the water and you have no idea where you’re supposed to be."
Still, they kept with it. And over the course of seven practices, there’s been a "100 per cent difference" in the team, Wilcox says. The men embraced it, sometimes to their surprise: Hjartarson’s husband was initially reluctant. Now, he’s been doing dryland drills of the team’s routine at home, and practicing at the pool in his spare time.
"I feel the team is coming together," Wilcox says. "Every time we get here, it seems like we get a little bit more in sync. You definitely see why the girls are practicing four, five, six times a week… it’s coming together, it’s a slow process, but I think by May 25th I think we’ll be able to rock this. It’ll be good."
That said, it’s still a work in progress. At their Pan Am Pool practice on Saturday afternoon, the team was, well, not always entirely in sync. As Hjartarson stood on the pool deck, counting out the beats, some feet flew up late; some arms flew up late; when heads were supposed to tilt to the left, a couple of heads tended to go the other way.
But there were lots of good-natured laughs after each attempt, and as the coach called out some corrective advice, the men nodded and took it in stride. After their practice was over, a coach from another program — who has been watching them since day one — came over to praise their efforts.
"I’m seeing a lot of improvement, really quickly," Hjartarson says, with a grin. "They’re learning a lot, and I’m learning a lot too. Men, their buoyancy is so much different than women’s. They’re all half-a-foot taller than me, and I’m not used to that."
The dads aren’t the only men’s synchronized swim team out there, but they are part of a rare group. For years, it’s been a female-dominated sport; in fact, only women could compete at the world championships until 2015, when mixed duets were added to the programme.
Meanwhile, the Olympics still only allow all-women’s team and duet performances, though there is a growing push to add men’s events. And the guys are starting to get attention: in 2010, there was a poignant documentary, Men Who Swim, about a Swedish all-men’s team; that story inspired a 2018 comedic feature film.
Still, as a result of the lack of men’s synchronized swimming events, it can be a challenge to entice boys to try it out. Wilcox, who sits on Aquatica’s board, says there’s only one boy who trains with the club currently. That’s something the dads would love to see change — and maybe their watershow performance can be a start.
"Trying to promote this to boys, we figured, how can we do this?" Wilcox says. "Well, nothing better than a bunch of dads to get in the pool and say ‘we can do it.’"
And the joy of the team goes beyond just promoting the sport. The dads didn’t know each other well before; now, they’re talking about hanging out outside of the pool. And of course, their daughters are delighted to follow the team’s progress: Wilcox’s daughter regularly peppers him with questions about what he learned at practice each week.
"I’m going to take a whole new appreciation for how much the girls work, for how much time they invest in it, and how much dedication it takes to actually put yourself out there all the time and train," Wilcox says. "It’s something that makes you want to be better, just to be able to do it, stay in shape, and to be with your daughter."
So what will family, friends and curious fans see on May 25th, when the men’s team performs at Aquatica’s big watershow fundraiser?
"We’re planning to do a minute and a half routine to a song that will hopefully entertain the crowd, raising awareness and having a lot of fun and building the community as we go," Gosselin says. "We’re hoping to get people to come and see the show, and maybe see the sport for the first time."
Tom Chubaty laughs during Manitoba’s first men’s synchronized/artistic swimming team practice.MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS
Head coach Holly Hjartarson leads Manitoba’s first men’s synchronized/artistic swimming team practice.MIKAELA MACKENZIE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS
The team work on their synchronization in the pool.