Ulla Lucenius: ‘The best way to learn to be a judge is to teach how to judge’

A Finland native, Ulla Lucenius has become over the years one of the most experienced judges of artistic swimming. The rulebook and manual hold no secrets for her, and she is one of the most sought-after instructors around the world.

As a FINA A judge, Lucenius officiated at the 1996, 2000, 2004 and 2008 Olympics as well as at countless World or European Championships. She also served on the then FINA Technical Synchronized Swimming Committee (TSSC) from 1992 to 2009 and was its Chairman from 2005 to 2009, during which she set up, formalized, and designed the curriculum of the FINA Judges’ Schools. Additionally, Lucenius has been on the LEN TSSC since 1990, and is its Chairman since 2012. Finally, she was a trustworthy FINA Evaluator starting in 1995, and has traveled all over the world to evaluate judges and conduct clinics. In parallel, she skillfully managed a professional career as a nurse and juggled with both duties simultaneously for decades.

Inside Synchro sat down with her to discuss her long and storied career, her perspective and insights from being in that judge’s chair for so long, as well as what her roles at FINA and LEN entail with some pretty interesting specifications on the LEN Rulebook!

Ulla Lucenius. Photo by Joni Toivola.

Inside Synchro: You have now been involved in this sport for about 40 years. How did it all start?

Ulla Lucenius: I was 14 years old when I started swimming. I was quite old, but that was when we got a swimming pool in Kuopio where I lived. My first contact with synchro was in that city. I was a board member of our local swim club and this German man, who was a board member of the club and also of the federation, came to a meeting one day. He said we would organize the Scandinavian Championships in synchronized swimming. We had no idea what it was, but we organized it. At that time everybody was doing figures and free routines, and we had no clue what these people were doing. 

Then I moved away from Kuopio but when I came back in 1980, I was chatting with some people and we started talking about that sport again. We decided to reinvent it and develop it here. Another Ulla was swimming in one of those teams 10 years ago, and she had her old film tapes that we all watched. I had also been in the water, trying what they were doing but it was not for me. I’d do a somersault and I had no idea where the bottom or the surface was anymore. 

So, we decided to go abroad to see what real synchronized swimming was. In 1982, we went to the Swiss Open, and people were so enthusiastic about Finland. Everybody was volunteering to send videos, material, really everything so we could come to the synchro family. Well, I’m still waiting! No videos or papers so far (laughs)! But they were really friendly. 

We started in a few cities in Finland, and we already had the following year the first Finnish Championships. I think at the time we had six cities, but we don’t have many more now, 13 I think? And perhaps 10 clubs come to the competition, so it’s not a huge sport. We have perhaps 350-400 athletes at the moment.  Anyways, that was a long story but that’s how I got involved!

IS: What really made you stick with it?

UL: It was so challenging to understand. Here you have to understand how the water and the body are united when they are making all these moves. I was a speed swimming coach, and it’s just start and finish. Pull and push. With synchro, it is so much more because you also rotate, part of you is up in the air and you’re upside down. The biodynamics in the air is totally different from the part that is underwater. I found it really fascinating.

IS: How did you then decide to become a judge?

UL: I was also coaching before I became a judge. Obviously we didn’t have anybody in Finland who could teach the judges’ course for us. So we went to Sweden when they organized the Scandinavian Open Championships and they had a sort of a judges’ school there. We could see what was happening in the water and where the scores were coming from. But I have always been quite a big analyst so it was really amazing to get videos and to start to analyze, like how much is the horizontal, how much is the vertical, and so on. 

Of course I was also working full time at the hospital, so I would do both jobs all the time. I was a nurse at the intensive care and at the operating theatre in Helsinki University Hospital. I forgot to retire two years ago, so I retired last year from the hospital. But I still have to be available to go to work if they ask until I’m 68.

IS: How did you manage to improve as a judge, particularly coming from a small synchro country and at a time when the World Wide Web did not exist yet?

UL: I think the best way to learn to be a judge is that you have to teach how to judge. Because then you have to think over and over about what you are saying, and you have to give a reason for the scores. I was giving clinics at home, and I was trying to get as much information as I could so I was traveling everywhere. If there was a seminar, I’d go and attend. 

It was not that easy to get the films of the competition at the time, so you had to have your big VHS cassettes, or have your own camera to make the recordings. But I was quite good at exchanging tapes, so I really got a lot of material. Then in Europe, I was judging at competitions where we had athletes. It was really nice when we started to organize our own Finnish Open Championships so we would get people from abroad coming as well. 

IS: What is your favorite thing about being a judge?

UL: Hm… Very tricky question! I just really enjoy being on the poolside to see what the coaches have invented. Coaches are so ahead of the judges. They are inventing a lot more things, and sometimes I think it’s a little bit difficult for judges to really appreciate the new things, especially now with all the acrobatics. It was maybe not more than 30 years ago at the FINA Cup that the Japanese team was doing a platform lift. We all thought that was crazy, and now the babies do that! 

But it’s not just the acrobatics; the interesting part for me is the way the coach can make the athletes play with each other and with the water. I appreciate a lot when I see really difficult pattern changes, or when they are “moving and doing” at the same time in the water. It can be really, really impressive. Even though the routines have become shorter, you still have to show so many things in there. 

On the other hand, I am also one of the very few judges who really enjoys judging the figures! I have never seen a figure competition where I have not learned something new. It’s so interesting.

IS: You have seen the sport change drastically over the years. It’s now faster, closer together, sharper. How do you keep up with it?

UL: I have a small story here. In 2006, we were in Yokohama, Japan, for the FINA Cup, and [FINA TSSC member] Miwako Homma was giving a presentation about the trends in synchronized swimming. She showed a team routine from 1992, and a 25-meter pool was just enough because the distances were so huge between the athletes in the water. But then, in the late 80s, we were in Mallorca, Spain, and the Korean athletes were so close to each other in the pool. Everybody was like, “How can they do that without kicking or punching each other?” I think that was the early trendsetter in a way. 

It took a while, but then all the movements got so rapid. The sport has grown so much to this speed and these hectic movements that you really have to have a trained eye to catch the good or the bad in synchronization, in height, in extension… You can’t just go to a competition and judge. You have to practice at home. You have to look at the videos repeatedly so that you are at that level where you see the rapid movements and what is happening there. 

IS: Would you say that the speed of a routine is the most challenging thing for a judge right now?

UL: It depends on which chair you are in. In the Execution chair, yes. On the other hand in Difficulty, there are so many types of difficulty that if it’s always just rapid, rapid, rapid, you cannot give much variety to it. So then comes these transitions, how to get in and out of things. I think nowadays that’s the part that makes the difference between the really, really best ones there at the top. It’s all about the seamless things that go inside the choreography. 

IS: Did you ever feel pressured in a way to give out a certain score to a country or to maintain a certain ranking?

UL: No, I have never had any pressure. The coaches that have been in this sport for a long time know what I do when I am sitting in the chair. I always have my little pool drawing, and I write what the athletes are doing, where they are going, what were the mistakes, and which moves I really did appreciate. A lot of coaches after the competition come and ask to read my notes.

My duty as a judge is to give feedback to the athletes and the coaches about their work. I am not ranking anybody. I am just giving a score, based on what I see in the water, on my notes, and what is in the rulebook and in the manual.

Sometimes, I know I look really horrible in the computer evaluations because it compares your score to the average of the panel. A really good example was last year in Gwangju [at the World Championships], I was judging elements in solo technical. I knew I could not live with myself if I gave a really high score for the last element [Barracuda Continuous Spin 720°] if they are making their twists at the ankles instead of making a spin. I just give the score from what I see. 

IS: Do you think judges can be completely unbiased, or do you think there is always a little implicit bias?

UL: No, there is always something. And of course when you have seen a routine many times in competition, you have somewhere in your mind an image of what is happening. Now, it can be a split second where it’s not done that well, and you will have that image to compare it to. Of course that can affect your score. It should not affect it, but we are all humans and that’s why there are five of us there. The highest and lowest go, and you get the average.

IS: What do you wish people knew about what being a judge is like?

UL: That they are humans (laughs)! They too have really long days at the pool. But they have also a really great sense of humor. You should sometimes be there in the meetings, and see how much people are not only enjoying but laughing about themselves.

Really, they are not against you, they are not against your country. They are there to make the competition happen and to give feedback to the athletes.

Ulla Lucenius (left) in 2016. Photo by Deepbluemedia.

IS: You took part in four Olympics Games. How does one become a judge or a referee at the Olympics?

UL: I was the referee in 2000 in Sydney, but I had been referee-ing already at the two previous world championships. We still were swimming with figures and free routines, and I was the youngest one in the committee so I always had to referee the figures because they took a long time (laughs).

Inside the technical committees, there have not been that many people that have had the experience of being a referee. To be one, you just can’t take a girl from the street and say “This is the whistle, blow!” You have to really know what is happening in the competition, not only there at the pool but everything that is leading to it. You have to know the rules perfectly and you have to be able to apply them in a split second. There are moments when you don’t have time to think, “Should I interfere? Should I not?” No, the decision has to be made right there. 

When I was there, you had to be first nominated by your federation on the FINA G level. You had to have at least four good evaluations during four years and then you’d become a B judge. Then, again at least four good evaluations during four years before you’d become an A judge. Then you had to be an experienced A judge, which meant that you had at least 12-15 years at the international level where you really get experience on all levels and you are evaluated all the time. Nowadays the career can be a bit shorter before you become an Olympic judge. You have more options to judge and gain experience because worlds are every other year. I also value a lot the big world series competitions like the one in Paris, or Europeans or Junior Europeans, where there are 25 or 30 federations.

Then it’s the FINA TSSC [now TASC] that selects the judges to go to the Olympics. I know that they really take care of the continental balance. But sometimes I think they should consider that if you have to have judges from every continent but if they never see anybody outside their continent or country, how do they get the experience of all the really different levels of athletes?

In LEN, we have a little bit different way to select. The federations send in the names, and then we check who got the good evaluations, who passed the schools, and this and that. And then of course when you make the panels of judges, you can consider that variety part to get the balance inside the continent.

IS: What has been your most memorable competition to judge at?

UL: They all have been nice. I don’t have any special ones. Of course, there are competitions that I remember more. We had the FINA Cup in 1999 in Seoul. We still had the figures and there was this very, very long figure. I remember Margo Mountjoy, the doctor of the Canadian team, with the doctor for the U.S. taking turns at that panel to get up the fainting athletes from the pool. I think they had to pull out eight or nine. Or when we were in Egypt in 2000 for the FINA B Cup, and the TV crew decided to go home earlier than the competition was finished. They unplugged themselves, but they actually unplugged the whole stadium, so we were in the dark. I have a lot of stories like this.

IS: How did you become a member of the technical committees of FINA and LEN?

UL: Coincidence. We were really lucky in Finland when we got a coach from the Soviet Union in the 1980s. Then they started to go abroad to competitions, and of course you need to have a judge to go with you. Very often, even if I had to pay myself, I was volunteering so I could gain more international experience. 

Then, finally my federation started to put my name forward on the international judges’ list. So I became a FINA judge and a LEN judge. Eventually I was asked if I would like to be part of the LEN synchro committee. My federation said yes, so I became a member. I feel in a way like Methuselah now (laughs). I have been in LEN since 1990. The same happened with FINA in 1992. The same people came to ask me if I would like to be a member of the FINA synchro committee and again my federation said yes. I was in it from 1992 until 2009.

IS: Can you talk more about your current position as the Chairman of the LEN TSSC? 

UL: Well right now, it’s about keeping the wagon rolling (laughs). We had meetings with the LEN Office on how we can go forward during the time when nobody could do anything, and how the situation was going to develop. I hope we can still have our annual LEN Clinic, which we have had since 2012 [scheduled for October 23-25 in Zagreb, Croatia]. If people cannot travel, we could always organize some type of video conference, so we still would be connected together and make the sport go forward. 

Besides that, I don’t want anybody in the committee to be a free passenger, so everybody has their tasks and their role. They form small groups where they are developing the sport. So, we have a special subcommittee for the rules, subcommittee for technology, subcommittee for judges, subcommittee for coaches, etc. I like when people volunteer to be in one, because it means they already have ideas and they want to develop something. 

We try to make all LEN competitions really high-quality. I’m quite proud of the input, and the financial input for synchro that we have received from LEN. In St. Petersburg [at the 2019 European Cup], there was the price money for the cup and also all the athletes got some reimbursement for travels. I wouldn’t say that you have to fight for the sport in LEN that much, but you have to be there to say, ”Hey remember us, synchro!” I understand that we are so small if you compare to swimming or water polo in Europe. But, I think we are doing okay.

IS: And as the FINA TSSC Chair, what was your proudest accomplishment?

UL: We started the FINA Judges’ Schools. We were the first sport to do it, and now I think all sports have their own too. I made 13 first schools. We had been talking for years about how we don’t know what the background of our judges is. With the schools, we could at least establish that at a certain stage all the judges would get the same education, so we would know that they know at least this much.

I think it’s very important that all those who judge in an international competition speak the same language. There are still people for whom the language seems to be a problem. When I was an evaluator, I saw how big the needs were of some of the judges to discuss their own judging, but they just didn’t have enough words. I don’t mean that you should be able to discuss all the latest news and coronavirus medical studies, but you should be able to “speak synchro.” 

IS: And what were some of your challenges in this position?

UL: We were fighting a lot to get more teams in the Olympic Games. One day, I was just moving piles of papers, and I saw there were the minutes of a FINA Bureau Meeting where we had proposed to have 12 teams in the Olympics, and the Bureau had approved that. Before that, the president of FINA at the time was asking me in Beijing in 2008, “Why do we have so few teams?” And I told him, “It’s your decision!” He wouldn’t believe it, and said we needed to make a proposal.

So we made it. With Ginny Jasontek at the time, we wrote so many papers, explained the rationality to how many federations were participating, how to make it work, having the five continents etc… And yes, it was there in the minutes that the Bureau was accepting to increase the number of teams in the Olympic Games. I don’t know what happened after that, but in London and in Rio we still had eight teams.

IS: That’s interesting, and also very puzzling. Do you think mixed duets could be included at the Olympics eventually?

UL: I really hope that they will make it, but they need a lot more federations to take part in the competitions. When you have 10-12 duets competing at worlds, how can you convince that they need to go the Olympics? You have to have a lot more. I was really hoping that in Europe we would have more, but even here we don’t. We have been pushing, and we have organized clinics about the mixed duet and everything. I really hope that we can increase the number of participants so that we could really say that this needs to go to the Olympics. It really adds a spice in this sport. 

IS: Yes, definitely. Hopefully men can also be included in other events on the world stage as well.

UL: You know in LEN, we are the only sport where we don’t have genders in the rulebook. We have always only “athletes” written. We even had the mixed duet until 2000 but nobody was taking part in it, so we took that out and rewrote the duet rules so you could have two males, two females, or a female-male pair. When we reintroduced mixed duet, we had to put in the rules that they have to be different genders. So now we have male and female, and it’s only there in the mixed duet. Still, in solo you can be a male or a female, in a team you could even have eight males, or 50/50. But we never had anybody.

IS: I don’t think people actually know that…

UL: No. Everybody reads the rules in the way they want to read them. 

IS: So you’re telling me that for example, Giorgio Minisini could swim in the free team routine for Italy at the European Championships?

UL: Yes, definitely. But because he cannot swim in the team at worlds, or a FINA competition, or in the Olympics, he has to be aside. Why would you put him there for Europeans? 

IS: Right, but a good start could be in the free combination or highlight. So, it’s possible for men to swim in any routine at any LEN competition.

UL: Sure. It’s good that I could give you something new (smiles).

IS: Besides more mixed duets, what would you like to see happen next for the sport and to raise its profile?

UL: Oh, the next thing is to get the swimming pools open, so that everybody can go and practice normally (laughs). 

In general, I’d like to see more federations taking part in major competitions. We had 46 or something last year at worlds, and it’s still less than half of the countries that we have in synchro. Or in Europe, it would be good if we could have 30 or more consistently. In LEN, we have 52 federations, and only 10 or 11 don’t have synchro. We definitely can add people. 

I’d like to see the coaches and judges working more together too. The judges need to know what coaches have in their minds. Like I said, judges are always behind. Then, acrobatics have come and will stay, but I really wish to see more interesting things happening, more doing while moving.

And I think nowadays it’s all about education. Educating the audience, educating the coaches, and educating the judges to know what you have to see to be in a certain score range. In LEN, we have been planning for a while already for the TV audience to get some sort of graphics, to show for example what the technical element looks like so they have some reference for the scores. It’s what they have in diving since they have to announce their dives in advance, and it would work with our technical elements since we have to make them in a certain order.

It would also be really interesting to be able to measure and see how much the swimmers are moving inside the pool, during the routine, how high they are thrusting or boosting, or how high their acrobatics go. It would be quite easy to organize, but I guess it’s very difficult to find a company that would come and develop the system.

Lucenius judging at the 2017 FINA World Championships. Photo from Synchro Finland.

IS: You were talking about adding in more federations and in general getting more people involved in the sport. How is it in Finland nowadays?

UL: It’s okay-ish. This was the first year in a very long time that we had three national teams. But we are suffering from the same issue as so many countries, where at 15 or 18, the swimmers have to make a really big choice to stay in the sport or not. There are many sports where you can choose your sport over school, but synchro is not one of them. It’s so much easier here if you are in ice hockey or skiing, but not synchro. 

We are still considered a developing sport, and the elite sports are swimming and diving. We should first get more people involved in synchro, more clubs, more participants, and so far we have been able to go a little bit abroad to compete. But if you get less than 30,000 euros from the federation, it’s not much to organize all the education, competitions and everything. The athletes that are in our national teams pay monthly fees to go to the camps, and then they pay to go to the competitions. 

But it’s good when we get some countries coming to the Finnish Open, like Denmark, Norway, Estonia or even clubs from St. Petersburg. It would be nice to have some sort of regional competition again, or maybe we could make it a little bit bigger and have like a Baltic Sea competition?

IS: So, once things return to “normal,” what’s next for you?

UL: This is my last year on the FINA list because I’ll be 65 in September. I was already planning to go to both the qualification tournament and the Olympics this year as a volunteer.

For LEN, we have the elections. They were supposed to be in Budapest with the European Championships in May. Now, according to the rules, the Congress needs to be this year. At the moment the new date is November 8, still in Budapest. The Congress will elect the President and the Bureau, and then the Bureau will decide the committees in their first meeting. My federation has put my name forward again for the next synchro committee, so we will see.

I think I will still be judging at least in Finland. Especially if I’m still going to be giving the judges’ courses here or travel to the schools, I have to stay involved because it’s very theoretical. You have to have the experience of real life before you can say that it should be like this or like that. Even if you are one year out, you are totally out from the sport because it changes fast. 

Article by Christina Marmet

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