Music. Breathe. Let the synchronicity begin.
Artistic swimmers have just two minutes to show off their strength, flexibility and aerobic endurance – all while smiling and trying not to wipe off their heavy, waterproof make-up.
“If you think that that is easy, we are doing our job fine,” 25-year-old Italian artistic swimmer Giorgio Minisini tells CNN Sport. “If you see that we are struggling, that we are making difficult things, maybe we are missing something.”
Dive deeper into the sport, however, and it turns out that aerobic capacity and striving for synchronization are the least of male artistic swimmers’ problems, according to Minisini.
Men took part in the sport at its creation, but until recently, they have always been banned from elite competition.
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“I’m happy to say that these inequalities are not men-derived. It’s one time that us – men – are discriminated [against],” Minisini admits. “But if there are no discriminations, it’s better.”
Historically, men haven’t been considered the ideal fit for this sport. Although they’re usually stronger than women, they are many times physically heavier and often less flexible, so it is harder for them to float.
‘You can be whatever you want’
Yet some male artistic swimmers have begun to break the stereotypes that surround them, while also conveying the beauty of masculine elements in the sport.
“We are used to seeing a sport with a lot of grace, a lot of elegance and there is also a big choreographic component,” says 23-year-old Italian artistic swimmer Nicolò Ogliari.
“It’s a dance in the water. Maybe, we are more used to seeing a woman that does these things. But like in classic dance, also in artistic swimming, there are men.”
Minisini explains that “being a man doesn’t mean that you have to be a certain kind of man. Being a woman doesn’t mean that you should be a certain kind of woman. You can be whatever you want.
“I think that these differences make the beauty [of life]. We should encourage this difference.”
Minisini became the first Italian male artistic swimmer to win a solo title at the Winter National Championships in 2021, where he beat 13 female artistic swimmers to take gold.
“I always knew that I wanted to swim differently from women and to give artistic swimming something new,” he says, adding that his medal at the Winter National Championships has been one of the most important of his career.
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Minisini fell in love with the sport at the age of four after watching the “god of synchronized swimming” – American athlete Bill May.
“Seeing a man swimming in that way was something different,” Minisini reveals.
“I think it was pretty convincing because Bill never swam like a woman. He always tried to make something different. I just wanted to follow his steps … when I started swimming.”
Ogliari says that when he randomly “put his head underwater,” he discovered the sport of his life. Due to the lack of men practicing the sport, he was able to compete on the Italian national team within a few years.
When Minisini and his partner tested positive for Covid just before the European Aquatics Championships in May, Ogliari got the call-up and was able to secure two bronze medals.
“I received an unexpected call from the technical commissioner, Patrizia Giallombardo, saying she wanted to bring myself and my partner Isotta Sportelli. We immediately left for Rome and we had only ten days to prepare two exercises – both technical and free.
“It was the most stressful time of the year … We were catapulted into Budapest, and I have to say, it was an amazing experience. I still cannot believe I went up on the podium.”
Striving for change
Minisini’s early career proved a struggle, not only because he never knew if men would ever be allowed to compete internationally, but also because he always found it hard to make people understand what he was doing.
“Someone just called me gay,” says Minisini. “Someone just called me stupid because artistic swimming wasn’t a sport – and wasn’t a ‘men’s’ sport.”
If male artistic swimmers are facing homophobia and prejudice, in recent years, there have been other more positive developments.
The first big milestone was marked in 2015 at the World Aquatics Championships in Kazan, Russia, when men were finally allowed to compete internationally.
Minisini represented Italy at the inaugural mixed duet in synchronized swimming, where he won a bronze medal with partner Manila Flamini in mixed duet technical and claimed another in mixed duet free with Mariangela Perrupato.
“I think that the coolest things of those competitions were to be there with all those men that never gave up,” he remembers.
“There was Bill May in the water, there was Pau Ribes – the Spanish guy – that, like me, swam all his life without knowing whether he could compete internationally. The same with Benoit Beaufils … In that competition, there were those 10 men … everyone bonded with the same experience.”
Minisini considers himself lucky because he was only 19 at the time.
“Thinking about Bill he was … over 30,” said the Italian. “So he had to struggle a lot more than me to compete at the World Championships.”
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However, male artistic swimmers are still prevented from competing at the Olympics.
“Unfortunately, there isn’t this specialty of the mixed duo,” concludes Ogliari. “So this Olympics thing seems like confirming a rather outdated way to see and understand this sport.”
In a statement, the IOC said it develops and establishes the Olympic program in collaboration with all stakeholders, including the athletes and the individual sport governing bodies.
CNN reached out to FINA – the international swimming federation – about the exclusion of male swimmers from the Olympics and Ogliari’s comments but did not receive a response.
While men are currently prevented from competing at the Olympics, they hope to be introduced at the 2028 Los Angeles Games.
“In 2028, I will be 32 years old. It would be not my best shape. But the Olympics are the Olympics. I would go even with one leg only and I will give all of myself to reach that dream,” says Minisini, whose other ambition is to create a path for the swimmers coming after him.
“We should give the next generations an easy world to live in and more opportunities to take.”