Kate Shortman and Isabelle ‘Izzy’ Thorpe are on a mission to bring Great Britain back to world and Olympic finals in artistic swimming. After being inspired by their country’s ninth place finish at the 2012 Olympics, the pair made a strong impression on the senior international stage four years later at only the age of 15. Another four years later, Shortman and Thorpe now represent the country’s Olympic hope in the duet event for 2021.
The two have been swimming together for as long as they can remember, and it was almost meant to be for the two of them to become a duet almost as soon as they started. They naturally fell into it as both of their mothers competed for the national team and were even duet partners themselves a few decades earlier, before eventually staying involved in the sport as coaches.
This interview was conducted as both athletes were still confined in their own homes in Bristol. They have since returned to the pool on June 1, 2020, and have resumed their training to peak for the Olympic Games Qualification Tournament which was postponed to March 2021.
Inside Synchro: How is the situation for you two with COVID-19 and the lockdown these last few months in the U.K.?
Isabelle Thorpe: Obviously we are still trying to train but it’s a bit difficult. We are still FaceTiming our coach every day as well as others that we normally have, like land-based coaches for gymnastics, ballet, flexibility, etc. Obviously, we have no water training which is a bit annoying. Other than that, we are just trying to keep busy and do things that we wouldn’t normally do because we don’t have much time in the normal rush of life. So, in some ways it’s quite nice to have a little bit of extra time.
Kate Shortman: Yes, we are doing quite a lot of land-based training now and stuff we would probably need to focus on more anyways. I know for me, my weaknesses are probably more on land so it’s quite good to have something to channel your energy into while you’re sort of forced to in a way. We have this opportunity now and that’s the only thing we can do, so it’s quite good to improve in that way.
IS: Of course a lot changed during this time, and the 2020 sporting calendar was essentially wiped clean. How did you guys deal with the postponement of the Olympics?
KS: Initially, obviously I was upset. I was a bit devastated because I had literally everything planned. I know it’s the same for Izzy, we had planned out every day of the year with all the training we were supposed to do to peak at certain times. Obviously it was disappointing, but when you step back from it, it’s definitely the right thing to do on a world-scale. Even on the sports level, some countries weren’t able to train, some still were, so it might have given a bit of a disadvantage to some countries. Now, it’s definitely more of an equal field.
IT: Yes I agree with that. Obviously we’ve had to change a lot of things now because it’s going to be an extra year in the timeline we had made. We are going to have to change a lot more things around, but it’s definitely worth it.
IS: How do you manage to stay motivated when you don’t know when you’ll go back to regular training hours and what it will be like once you return?
KS: To be fair, I haven’t really felt any demotivation. I’ve got the same goal in my mind. Okay, it’s later now, but I’m still focused on that. I’ve still got my Tokyo 2020 flag up on my wall, and that reminds me that I’m still working for the same goal, even if it is next year now.
IT: Same for me. I also try to keep busy all the time, so I feel like I am doing okay on the motivation side of things. And it’s the same as Kate; I have my Tokyo 2020 flag up, and it’s still there every day like a constant reminder.
KS: I also think it helps that we are seeing and are still in contact with the team, so there’s still a really big support network around us. It’s not like we’ve gone into quarantine and we’re literally cut off from the rest of the world. There is still that community feel, almost a family vibe. I think that helps keep us motivated as well.
IS: Did all the changes in your athletic schedule affect your school schedule as well?
IT: I’ve just finished my education. I was going to go to university next year, but obviously I’ve had to change that now. And for Kate it’s a little different…
KS: Yes, I was supposed to take one A-level this year and two A-levels next year [A-levels are a subject-based qualification and the standard assessment of applicants for U.K university admission. It is equivalent to high school diplomas in certain countries.] So now I am just spreading them out equally because we have retakes in September for this year. So I’m able to take one more of my A-levels this year in September as a “retake.” It kind of spaces them out more evenly now.
IS: To get back to your beginnings in artistic swimming, your mothers used to be teammates for the Great Britain team in the 1980s, and even swam a duet together. Did they inspire you to get into synchro yourselves?
IT: Yes, we both started through our moms. When I was younger, I started with gymnastics and synchro, and then decided that I preferred to just do synchro so I went into that. There is my mom, and also a few of my family are in the swimming world. But Kate has got the whole family in the aquatics world (laughs)!
KS: (laughs) Yeah! I started with speed swimming because my dad was a speed swimming coach and my brother did it, while my older sister and my mom did synchro. Then when I was about seven, I think it’s about the same age as Izzy, I started with synchro and it went from there.
IS: Kate, your mom used to be your coach, and Izzy, yours is now the national team manager. How is it having your mothers around so much throughout your careers so far?
IT: I feel like I’m just so used to it! Obviously it’s always been a constant in my life, but now I look at it more professionally than before. I can’t just be like, ‘Oh yay my mom is here!’ because obviously the other girls don’t have their moms there so it’s not really fair at times. I feel like as I’ve gotten older, I’ve looked at it in a more professional way. But it is nice for sure (smiles).
KS: My mom coached me mainly with solo up until last year and she was my main coach. When it’s really good, it’s really good because obviously you have your mom there and it’s really nice to share that. But then when there are slight disagreements or something, it can get quite intense (laughs). We just have learned to get on with it.
IS: And you both started in Bristol and stayed there, right?
IT: Yes. We both go to the same school now, and our school has a swimming pool. That was really good for us because if we had no lessons, we would be able to go and train in the pool together which was really nice for us. Before, Kate was in a different school, but she eventually changed to join me.
IS: What made you stick with the sport in the first place?
IT: I feel like for me it was the nice atmosphere. Everyone is so friendly, especially when I first started swimming in my club, everybody was so welcoming and nice. I feel like I made really good friendships within the sport and it was just really nice to have that outside of school.
KS: I’d agree with that. I also think it’s a really diverse sport. With speed swimming, it’s a lot of back and forth and there are only four different strokes, as opposed to synchro where it’s more about passion and expressing yourself to music. There is also a team, solo, duet… It’s a lot more diverse than other sports, and I liked that a lot.
IS: Normally, what’s a typical day of training for you guys?
IT: Last year we were still kind of doing full-time education. So we would do training in the morning quite early for a couple hours in the pool or in the gym, then go to school all day, and then swimming again in the evening until 8:00 p.m. Those were quite long days because of school obviously, so we weren’t home for a long time on some days.
KS: Right, and lots of times we would leave school in the middle of the day so we would go for a gymnastics lesson at lunch, and then carry on to 8:00 or 8:30 p.m. at night with synchro.
IS: When did you guys start swimming together as a duet?
IT: Hm…at nine?
KS: Well, I think 10, or 11? We started in a team together at nine, and I think we did a little duet in the combo. We were the youngest, so everyone was like, ‘Aw, they look so cute.’ We were both really, really small.
IT: Our first duet was probably at nationals when we were 11, and we’ve done a duet ever since!
IS: Did you always want to go to the Olympics, or did that goal come later on?
KS: I think it’s always in the back of your mind. Even when you’re really young and even if it seems that it’s something unattainable, it’s still there. A lot of athletes see it as the pinnacle of what you can achieve. For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to go to the Olympics, but it’s only become real within the last four years or so.
IT: Definitely same, although I always thought everybody dreamed of going to the Olympics. It was always a dream for me when I was younger, but I didn’t think specifically that I’d be doing it in synchro. But when I went to see the synchro in 2012 in London when I was 11, I was really like, ‘Oh my god, I want to do this’ (laughs). I think that was the point where I really wanted to become an Olympian.
IS: You made your senior international debut in 2016 when you were only 15 while also competing in the 13-15 and junior categories. How has it been these last few years managing all these competitions in multiple age groups at the same time?
KS: Yes, that year we were in 13-15, junior and senior! It was crazy, but I think we’ve just been trained and conditioned to do it. It can get quite confusing with the figures and elements, especially if it’s really similar, we really have to focus to remember a slight detail change. But I think we just get on with it, really.
IT: I think in some ways it helps a bit. For juniors obviously, we have had that experience of swimming as seniors, so then when we go to junior meets we take that experience with us and it helps a lot during those competitions.
IS: Now you’re officially “just” seniors, and aiming to make it to Tokyo through the Qualification Tournament in March 2021. Can you tell me more about your two Olympic routines and how they came about?
KS: The tech routine is obviously Japanese-themed for the Olympics. We are in talks at the moment about possibly changing that routine, because now we’ve had it for two years already so we are not sure what to do. We were really excited to get ourselves out there with it last year, and make the message known that obviously we want to qualify for Tokyo.
IT: Our new free routine is Flamenco. Kate and I swim well to upbeat music, so as soon as we heard that music we were like, ‘Yes! That’s so us!’ We couldn’t wait to swim that.
IS: Do you get to pick the music and help with the choreography, or is it all your coach?
KS: Our coach did give us this free duet music. But it’s not just one-sided, we all sort of contribute, especially choreography-wise. [Coach Paola Basso] will be like, ‘Try something along these lines,’ and then we will come up with different stuff and select what we want to use. It’s definitely a team effort.
IT: We’ve had a lot of input from other coaches as well. We’ve seen [Spain’s technical director] Ana Montero, and she’s helping us with some choreography. It’s a group effort and it definitely suits us in the end.
IS: Paola Basso became your coach ahead of the 2015 season. What has she implemented or brought to you that you didn’t have before?
KS: She’s a very technical coach. Well, we hope that we can show that with our elements, which is something we feel we have definitely improved with her. We hope that people see that in our tech routine, especially since elements are less subjective and it’s easier to have a direct comparison between duets. But yes, she’s very go back to basics, and she makes sure we’ve all that nailed before we start adding in more complex movements.
IT: She’s also got a lot of experience because she’s coached in Italy prior to coming to coach us so she’s got a little bit of background knowledge of that training, which is good because she can bring that into ours.
IS: Kate, you were talking about your mom helping you with your solos earlier. Does Paola also work with you for those routines, or has it really been just you and your mom up until last year?
KS: Me and my mom choose the music and do most of the choreography. We also have Stefania Speroni who helps choreograph all our duets, so she helps with the other choreographies as well. And again, Paola helps more with the technical elements and the basic positions. Then, I work with my mom to sort of embellish it more and fine-tune it all.
IS: Your first world championships were for both of you in 2017 in Budapest. Kate, did you expect to make the free solo final for your first time out as a soloist on the senior stage?
KS: Not at all! We were looking down the list of competitors that were going to swim, and we were working out where I could place. Stefania was just like, ‘Look, you’re going to have to swim out of your skin.’ I guess I did just that, and it worked (laughs)!
IS: I assume it must be one of your goals to qualify the duet next to a world final?
IT: We were so close in Gwangju [at the 2019 FINA World Championships], and we were only two places off. We were the youngest pair so coming in 14th wasn’t a complete setback, but we were obviously disappointed because we swum well and the scoring was really close. But, it motivates us even more now.
IS: What do you think you need to do to reach that top 12?
IT: I think just keep getting out there, keep competing, keep showing the judges who Great Britain is! Because obviously we have only really come up in these last few years, and we need to keep reminding them that we are here to make a final and to qualify for the Olympics.
KS: I think especially now with an extra year, it gives us an advantage of working towards being ranked even higher. This year, there is sort of a precedent set already, so next year we can continue to break through.
IS: Other than being in Tokyo, do you have any other goals in mind, maybe in terms of routines or scores, or anything else you’d like to accomplish?
KS: I think long-term it’s definitely about 2024, and we want to keep pushing even higher. Who knows, we are still so young. As I said earlier, we are just going to see how it goes and where our synchro careers take us. But that’s the next big one after 2021 for sure.
IS: I’m so happy to hear 2024 is on your mind. What has been your favorite competition or memory so far?
KS: I’d say 2017 worlds in Budapest. It was so nice and outdoors, and it was definitely the first big competition that we’d been to as a duet. I was just starstruck the whole time. Seeing the Great Britain divers, or also all the top, world-class synchro swimmers. I was really just so starstruck (laughs)!
IT: Yes, same! I feel like I wasn’t even expecting it. I was kind of like, “Ok this is going to be exciting.’ But I got there and it hit me. I just remember this pool, seeing it and how huge it was. I was just like, ‘Oh my god I am going to compete in this pool, it’s going to be so scary!’ But afterwards, it was just an amazing experience.
IS: How is artistic swimming perceived in Great Britain? Do you guys have any media attention or funding, or is it difficult?
KS: It’s been a minority sport in Great Britain. It’s a lot less participated in than we would obviously hope, but with the people in it there is a really tight community and everyone is so supportive. We are really lucky to have that. Then, we get various grants from different organizations so that helps.
IT: I feel like the closer we get to 2020 the more helpful they’ve been. Like UK Sports and others, they might have given us a little bit more money than before. It’s been really good, and they have obviously seen our improvement in scores and results. So, we just have to keep pushing for the next level and hopefully more funding could come in maybe.
IS: Speaking of media attention and support, you guys went viral last year with the project of the Big Bang Fair, where you performed your routine in a pool full of plastic to highlight the issue of plastic pollution. Can you tell me more about that experience?
IT: I was so surprised by the fact that it got so much publicity. We went into it thinking this was a really good thing, and that hopefully we could build awareness to it while also bringing awareness to our sport. But then it literally just blew up (laughs)! So many people were coming up to us and telling us they saw our video. All around school, everyone was playing it. It was just so strange, but it was such an amazing opportunity for us to be in, and it definitely helped me become more aware of plastic pollution. I’ve made more effort now to use less plastic, use metal straws or metal bottles, whereas before I think I wasn’t as aware of it as I am now.
KS: [The plastic] actually was a lot heavier than I was expecting. At first, I thought it would be fine because it’s just some plastic bags. And then it’s so surprising, when you get your hand or your arm caught in it, it’s actually really heavy. It was quite claustrophobic to swim in.
IS: You guys were indeed everywhere! You were featured on BBC, the World Economic Forum, a branch of the National Public Radio in the U.S., the Huffington Post… It was so cool to see.
KS: It was so odd to get such a global response. There were literally so many people who saw it, even at synchro competitions! There was once a Japanese judge who came up to us and told us she saw our video. That’s when we were really like, ‘Oh my goodness, it literally reached everybody.’ We didn’t expect it at all.
IS: Do you feel like more people know about the sport now in Great Britain?
IT: I think it definitely brought more attention to the sport especially in the U.K. And more people were sharing the video especially within synchro, so it was kind of helping each other out. Synchro was helping raise awareness for plastic pollution, and going viral with that was also bringing attention to us.
Article by Christina Marmet
Cover photo by Pasquale Mesiano/Deepbluemedia.
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