Canada wins two Pan Am gold medals in synchronized...
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Jul 11, 2015  |  Vote 0    0

Canada wins two Pan Am gold medals in synchronized swimming

Karine Thomas and Jacqueline Simoneau win duet and Rio Olympics berth, then help Canada take team event

OurWindsor.Ca

While all gold medals are cherished, at the Pan Am Games some mean more than others.

Canadian women Karine Thomas and Jacqueline Simoneau not only stood atop the podium Saturday, they punched their golden ticket to next year’s Rio Olympics in duet synchronized swimming.

There were tears and there was absolute giddiness as the enormity of the accomplishment, an automatic entry to the 2016 Games, sunk in. The two Quebec swimmers almost flawlessly unveiled a beautiful and challenging free routine that had the capacity crowd at Pan Am Aquatic Centre screaming in support.

“As soon as I finished the swim, as soon as I saw we were No. 1, I was thinking, ‘Oh my god, the Olympics.’ ” said 18-year-old Simoneau. “When I was crying earlier, I had all the emotions going through my head, flashbacks to when I was a little kid just dreaming of going to the Olympic Games. And now this dream has finally almost come true, and I don’t really know how to react about it. (I’m) just so thankful to everybody who’s helped me get to where I am, including Karine, my family, all the coaches, even all the volunteers who have been so kind . . . it’s an amazing experience.”

Later in the day, Thomas and Simoneau got back in the pool as part of the eight-woman synchro team. Again, they helped nail a very challenging free routine — both Canadian swims had the highest level of difficulty in their events — to earn another gold medal.

This one, however, didn’t come with a Rio reservation. That will have to be earned in March in Brazil in the Olympic pool during a qualifying swim, where the top three teams will move on.

While it didn’t earn an Olympic pass, coach Meng Chen believes the brilliance with which the women executed their free routine is a sign of bigger things ahead.

“With this performance we’re ready to show the world: Watch out, we’re coming,” she said of her young squad. Only Thomas is a holdover from the London 2012 team that finished fourth.

The coach also believes that the Olympic invite earned by Thomas and Simoneau will motivate the other women.

“(For them) to qualify now brings confidence to our whole team,” she said. “The rest of their teammates want to give more because they also want to qualify, they also want to go to Rio, to get better performance out of themselves.”

The reaction of the crowd here, some 5,300 strong, will also act as a turbo charge for their training, the women say. They fly to Slovakia Sunday for a training camp in advance of the world championships that start in Russia at the end of the month.

The fans here cheered so vociferously, it felt like even a misplaced Canadian nose plug would have brought the partisan crowd to its feet.

“I could hear the screaming from underwater,” said team member Claudia Holzner.

Thomas said each time she came up for air and heard the din, it was “like a validation that we’re still doing a good job.”

“When you hear the roar of the crowd, it’s something we really don’t get to experience that often as elite athletes. To compete on home turf is awesome,” she said.

The routine Thomas and Simoneau put together includes a tremendous number of spins and lengthy underwater manoeuvres, but they nailed it. The judges also love height and the Canadians were able to get some serious elevation out of the water. Mexico took the silver, while the U.S. was third in both swims.

“I think our duet (women) have the quality to be on the podium on the international scene. They have the full package,” said Chen. “The two swimmers have equal ability to swim. The difficulty in this routine is extremely high.”

The Canadian duo came into the competition as the favourites and had the advantage of training here at the impressive, new aquatic centre.

“To be quite honest, we were very nervous coming into this,” said Thomas. “It’s a very hard (routine) for us and we also knew it’s an Olympic qualifier, so to have this around our necks right now is an amazing feeling. To know we’re heading to Rio next summer, we’re very excited.”

Thomas, who is 26, said the age and experience disparity between the swimmers is not an issue. Simoneau called Thomas her “mentor.” The two are as in sync out of the water as they are in it.

“It’s a happy match between us. We haven’t been working together that long, but I think we’ve grown (together) quite a bit, especially in the last year,” said Thomas. “We’re just a really good duet. We are very matter of fact, very (businesslike) when we are in the water. We just know exactly what to do, but when we’re out of the water we get along great as well. She’s one of my best buddies, so I honestly couldn’t ask for a better person to do this with.”

Thomas added that qualifying for the Olympics now is hugely important. It will, she said, allow them to concentrate strictly on preparing for Rio.

“It means we’ll be able to go more in depth into our training, so it’s awesome,” she said.

Canada is a synchro power at the Pan Ams, sweeping the duet and team events at Mexico four years ago as well.

However, Canadians have not won a medal at the last three Olympics. Their last was a team event bronze at Sydney in 2000.

Toronto Star

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