Few people are aware that artistic swimming was brought to Malta in 2010 by two Japanese athletes and the sport is thriving. Maltese swimmers have already started to make a name for themselves on the international scene. National coach Michelle Hubner, spoke to Maria Vella-Galea ahead of the team’s participation in the European Championships at the National Pool today…
Michelle Hubner was not really interested in artistic swimming when it was recommended to her by her swimming coach.
There was a lot of convincing both from her mother and her coach until she decided to take the proverbial plunge. Sixteen years later, she is still going strong.
Hubner’s competitive profile has seen her compete for 14 years, 10 of which as part of the Bulgarian national team.
As a national team athlete, she represented her country in several solo and duet events at the FINA World Series. Her sights were firmly set on the Tokyo Olympic Games but injury put paid off her attempts, thus ending a much-desired dream.
Hubner has now focused her attention towards coaching and has been in charge of the Maltese national team since December 2020.
To the uninitiated, until 2017, the sport was referred to as Synchronised Swimming, but eventually it changed its name to Artistic Swimming.
A combination of sports and performing arts, artistic swimming is also referred to as “water ballet”.
For most of its existence, the sport was a women’s sport, however this changed in 2015, when a mixed duet routine was introduced during the World Championships, held in Kazan, Russia. The introduction of this routine eventually allowed male swimmers to compete in solo and duet events on an international level, making the sport even more attractive to the public.
Artistic swimmers are required to incorporate skills from various disciplines such as swimming, dancing and gymnastics. It requires great strength, endurance, flexibility, artistry and exceptional breath control under water. Routines include twists, pointed toes, lifts, and splits and because routines are based on musical pieces, swimmers need to have a good feel for music.
Artistic Swimming in Malta was introduced in 2010 by Saho Harada and Naoko Kawashima – two of Japan’s leading artistic swimmers. Both represented their country in the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens (Greece) and emerged bronze winners in the team event.
In 2008, in Beijing (China) Harada and Kawashima once again emerged as Olympic medallists having won Bronze in the duet competition.
Hubner explained that, artistic swimming is a fast-growing sport and currently, there are around 150 swimmers, aged between five and 17 who regularly train in the sport.
When asked if there is any kind of special criteria to start training in artistic swimming, Michelle states that preferably, athletes need to be able to swim beforehand.
However, dedication and love for the sport are at times even more important than the actual physical activities.
“Although artistic swimming is a relatively young sport in Malta, it is growing pretty fast. The girls are incredibly hardworking and talented, so the future of the sport looks very promising” said Hubner.
“We also have our first male athlete and hope that he will inspire more males to start training in the sport”
Artistic swimming is a team sport and therefore athletes train together for most of the time. The training system is complex – starting off on land where athletes undertake flexibility and strength exercises as well as ballet and acrobatics.
Training then proceeds in the pool where athletes focus on specific elements of their routines. Training involves a degree of changes here and there in order to meet the diverse needs of each athlete.
No discussion or conversation is complete without a mention of the COVID-19 pandemic, but Hubner is highly optimistic.
“Of course there were many challenges that the athletes had to contend with but in spite of everything huge progress has been made,” Hubner said.
“For example, for four months of last year, access to pools
was forbidden, many competitions were postponed or cancelled. But like everyone else, we had to adjust. With the help of modern technology, athletes were able to attend online training sessions as well as virtual competitions against athletes from all around the globe.
“The lack of motivation due to the challenges COVID-19 put the swimmers through was one of my major concerns but thankfully technology helped to mitigate the situation we were in.”
Calendar of events
A national calendar of events was set up and the first competitions were hosted in November 2020 and judged by a panel of international judges.
Towards the end of the year, two artistic swimming clubs, supported by the ASA, organized a Christmas Gala wherein parents could enjoy their children’s performances in spite of the ongoing pandemic. In an attempt to make the event more accessible to the public, the event was streamed online.
As we sat down for this interview, Hubner and her team had just returned from a highly successful participation in the first International Competition in Blagoevgrad (Bulgaria). Their performances brought home three silver and two bronze medals.
This participation will serve the national team well in its preparations for the Junior European Championship which get under way today at the National Pool.
Hubner, concludes the interview by expressing her hope of a less fluid COVID-19 situation which will enable the team to travel more and gain more experience at international level. Nevertheless, their attention is fully focused on the forthcoming European Championships for which they hope to give a strong and solid performance.