Ayrton Sweeney, 29, never knew that pointing his toes would become a big part of his life. The seemingly straightforward manoeuvre will become even more important on 24 June when Sweeney makes history in Budapest, Hungary, by becoming the first man to represent South Africa in synchronised swimming.
Sweeney is no stranger to international competition, having represented South Africa in swimming on many occasions. But this is something completely different. He took up the artistic version of the sport just a few months ago and qualified for the Fina World Championships by securing a score of 5.5 at the national championships in Durban with partner Laura Strugnell. Now he will compete on one of the greatest stages of the sport.
“I’m always up for a challenge and being a professional South African swimmer, the competitive edge is always alive,” he says. “Synchro posed a new challenge for me to push myself out of my comfort zone. Being out of my comfort zone is the best place to be and being the first African male to compete in synchro really appealed to me as well. Making history and changing the game is all I want to do.”
Making the switch certainly came with its challenges. “It was pretty difficult and still is. Swimming was about getting there and back as quickly as possible. Synchro has so many elements to it regarding technique and synchronicity with a partner. That is one of the most difficult parts for me,” he says.
Moving from an individual sport has also taken some adjustment. “I have been so used to being a solo athlete. What swimmers don’t tell you is that we become very selfish in the way we move and think. I now have someone to think about and that has been a huge adjustment for me.
“It’s been a fun adjustment but tricky at times, too. On a similar note, pointing my toes has been insanely difficult to remember. I get told that about 983 times per training session. It’s become a mantra, for sure.”
The sport of synchronised swimming, now known as artistic swimming, has been a part of the Olympic programme since 1984, but it was reserved for women. Male participants have been included at the Fina World Championships since 2015, but they are still waiting for Olympic inclusion. Strugnell competed at her first Olympic Games in Tokyo last year with Clarissa Johnston and the duo achieved the highest score by a South African team at a major international event.
“Olympics was mentally and physically one of the toughest challenges I have had to face in my career,” admitted Strugnell. “So when Ayrton came to the pool and we convinced him to try it out he took us completely by surprise. I had never coached someone who was able to catch on to the basic moves in 90 minutes. My coach and I were trying to figure out how we could convince him to stay because it would change the perception of our sport in so many people’s eyes.
“Working with Ayrton has been so much fun, challenging at times as male and female athletes don’t think the same, we don’t have the same bodies and techniques that usually work for female athletes don’t work for males,” she added.
“But he has reminded me that it’s okay to be out of your comfort zone and I truly admire his courage to do something that not many people would take on.”
It’s all tough
Even though some have suggested synchronised swimmers are the fittest athletes at an Olympics, Sweeney is loath to compare different sports or suggest one might be more taxing than another. “It’s very difficult to say. It’s different and I don’t think it’s fair to say any sport is harder or more demanding.
“Swimming was incredibly difficult and my event was the 400m individual medley. Any swimmer will tell you what that feels like: death. Synchro swimmers are incredible athletes, but so are all sports that reach the top. If you put your mind, body and soul into a sport it will always be difficult, so I have huge respect for any athletes.”
However, Sweeney does believe synchro athletes are often underestimated. “People don’t realise how strong you have to be. It’s hardcore. People think it’s a soft sport and that is not the case. You have to be tougher than tough and I have experienced that first-hand. Trust me, if you want a challenge, try dancing upside down in the water. I’ve seen a lot of people dance at clubs and it’s not pretty, so I can’t imagine they would find it easy under synchro conditions. I’m not a dancer so I think I’m putting up a good effort,” he adds with a laugh.
Understandably, Sweeney’s friends and family were rather surprised to hear of his switch in sports. “They were shocked, to be honest, and most didn’t believe me. My swimming teammates were in disbelief and still are, but I’ll be seeing them in Budapest, just at different pools. Once they realised it was for real, they were stoked for me and supported me all the way.”
As for the prospect of competing on the world stage, Sweeney says: “It’s going to be epic. I went to world champs for swimming in 2017 and now I’m there doing synchro. I have only done one competition and that was SA nationals in Durban. This will be my second comp so it’s a massive thing for me to compete at worlds, especially in a second discipline, and such an honour.
“The goal is just to have fun with my synchro partner Laura. The journey has been full of laughs and fun, so we’ll be keeping it that way. Just competing for South Africa in synchro is unbelievable.”
While he competed in world championships and the Commonwealth Games in swimming, Sweeney never qualified for the Olympic Games. Even if men are allowed to compete in the next Games in Paris in 2024, he is reluctant to commit to any serious long-term goals at the moment. “Honestly, I don’t see much more than the second I am currently living in, so no long-term goals. But if I had to choose one – pointing my toes.”