After two years without any major international meet due to the Covid-19 pandemic, junior athletes were finally able to compete again last week.
28 federations gathered in a sports “bubble” in hot and sunny Malta to participate in the 2021 LEN European Junior Championships. Despite the limited training time for many, the overall level of the competition was quite high and impressive. Ultimately, seven countries shared medals across 10 events, and three of them won European titles.
For the vast majority of the athletes, the last international competition was in 2019 at either the European Junior Championships, or the Youth World Championships. A few dozen of them did compete in senior meets over the last few months. This was however the exception rather than the rule.
Athletes who were 19, or turning 19, this year (born in 2002) were exceptionally allowed to compete. This followed a decision from FINA last year to give one extra year of eligibility to the last-year juniors who could not swim because of the pandemic.
Russia was unattainable in the seven events it entered. The nation reached some incredible scores across the board, topping at least 91 points in all routines. Daria Kirsanova, 2019 Youth World Champion and reigning multiple-time national champion, made her junior debuts. She had competed earlier in the year in the Kazan World Series leg, and had clearly set herself up as the favorite to win in Malta.
Kirsanova swam to Lara Fabian’s “Je suis malade” for her technical routine, where she executed near-flawless elements. She comfortably took the gold medal with a four-points lead ahead of Ukraine’s Anastasiia Soldatenkova. In free, her spider-themed solo earned a massive score of 92.0000 for the gold.
In the duet and following the retirement of her longtime partner Kseniia Ladnaia, Elizaveta Minaeva was paired with 16-year-old Violetta Evenko. Evenko was already part of the Russian duet at the 2019 FINA Youth World Championships, and is no stranger to the international stage. Like Kirsanova, the two competed in Kazan, and are also the reigning junior national champions in duet. Their technical program, set to a modern mix of Tchaikovsky, earned 91.4742. Their “Pretty Girls” free routine saw a 92.5333.
In the team events, the Russians were again out of reach. They showed impeccable elements in their technical programme, set to traditional folk music, for a score of 91.6688.
In the free team event, the Russians were the clear favorites, particularly after beating Japan’s Olympic squad with that same routine in Kazan. This specific choreography, “The Path,” has originally been performed by the junior team from the Olympic Synchronized Swimming Centre of Anastasia Davydova since 2020. In Malta, the national team received 92.7333 for it. Finally, Russia’s last gold came in the free combination with score of 92.6000.
It will be fascinating to see how many of these athletes eventually wound up on the senior team over the next few years following the likely retirement of many of the veterans. Keep Ekaterina Kossova in mind, a staple of the national teams in the youth and junior categories since 2017. She also finished second of the junior national team selections earlier this year behind Minaeva.
Ukraine competed across all events at this competition, except the mixed duet. It left Malta with one gold and seven silver medals. The Ukrainians became European champions in the highlight event, which was on the programme for the first time. There, the juniors were just as impressive as the seniors with their acrobatic abilities. They also finally hit their risky handstand lift that had given them trouble all day in training.
Most of this squad was the same as for the 2019 Youth Worlds, although Olesia Derevianchenko, Sofiia Matsiievska and Anastasiia Soldatenkova have also had brief stints with the senior team. The latter actually competed in all eight events at these junior championships, and ended the meet as the most decorated athlete.
Spain had a fabulous competition, coming away with two gold, one silver, and five bronze medals. In addition, the nation was the only one entered in all 10 events.
The mixed duet of Maria Bofill, Fernando Diaz del Rio and Dennis Gonzalez became the new European Champions. Bofill and Diaz del Rio scored 83.2086 in tech, while she and Gonzalez earned 84.0000 points for their “Angels and Demons” free routine.
The Spanish earned silver in highlight, while the bronze medals came in duets, teams, and free combination. In the technical and free team events, Spain presented the same choreographies as in 2019, with the ‘Avatar’ free routine and the Fanfare tech routine. Both were created by Paula Klamburg.
Their “Life in the Factory” free combination, formerly used by the senior team as a free team, had actually helped Spain reach the silver medal position back in 2019. However this time around, it was not enough to overcome the Ukrainians, and the Spanish had to settle for another bronze.
One of the major upsets of this competition came from Belarus. In both solo events, Vera Butsel edged Spain’s Mireia Hernandez for bronze. Butsel was particularly stunning in the technical event, and even surpassed Ukraine’s Soldatenkova in the elements. After her swim, she could not hold back tears upon realizing she would be on the podium.
A few days later in the free solo, she received 88.4333 and secured herself another medal. She is coached by Natalia Sakharuk, and has also worked with Russian Olympic champion Anastasia Ermakova on both of her choreographies.
These were not Butsel’s first individual medals internationally, as she also won bronze in solo back at the 2017 COMEN Cup. It remains however a very impressive feat to reach the podium in the junior category, and facing a much deeper field.
In general, Belarus certainly solidified its status as the top one to continue to watch over the next few years. It was quite a breakthrough season overall for the nation both in the senior and junior categories. Back at the 2018 European Junior Championships, it finished seventh across multiple events. Now three years later, the country seems to be on the verge of many more podiums.
Most of the Belarusian athletes in Malta have actually been competing together since 2018 as juniors. All but one will fully move to the senior category next season. Besides, they already participated in many senior competitions this season, with the European Championships and both virtual World Series legs. This undoubtedly gave them confidence and invaluable international experience that very few other junior teams had.
Finally, the rest of the medals were won by Italy, France, and Greece. The latter won bronze in Highlight with a “Final Fantasy” choreography. The majority of the swimmers on the Greek squad made their junior international debuts in Malta. The squad was essentially made of 2004- and 2005-born athletes, as most of the top, and older, Greek juniors are actually on the Olympic team.
Italy and France’s medals came in the mixed duets. France‘s Madeline Philippe and Quentin Rakotomalala defended their bronze medal from 2019 in tech, and finished only 0.459 points behind Italy. However in free, Edoardo Fanton and Claudia Laveglia ranked comfortably ahead with a score of 79.5798 to France’s 77.4667.
The mixed duet event also featured Jozef Solymosy and Silvia Solymosyova, who represented Slovakia at the European Championships in Budapest in May. The siblings settled for fourth place in both events in Malta, receiving 73.5407 in tech and 74.4000 in free
Finally, Great Britain entered a mixed duet for the first time in an international competition. Ranjuo Tomblin and Rosie Rallings only swam in the technical event and scored 72.7499, less than a point behind the Slovakians. The two only trained together for two months prior to the competition, but already showed great potential for the future.
Slowly but surely, Israel is moving up the rankings, even inching closer to Greece and France. In technical solo, Ariel Nassee finished five tenths behind France’s Romane Lunel. Across both duet events, the Israelis were less than seven tenths behind the Greek.
In free team, they actually overcame Greece with their “Planets” routine, and finished only a point behind the French squad. Actually, six athletes in the Israeli squad present in Malta were part of the historical bronze medal win at the 2021 European Championships a few months ago.
Another nation to keep an eye on is Germany. The Germans were particularly improved across all their events, and received scores that rivaled or topped the range of some of the latest senior scores. In free team, they received 81.2000, nearly six points more than in 2019. For reference, the German senior team at the 2018 European Championships scored 78.8000.
This new German squad, mostly made of young athletes who last competed at the 2019 Youth World Championships, had a theme of “Dangerous Animals.” The choreography was created by Olga Pylypchuk and coaches Yoko Nakahama, Stella Mukhamedova and Doris Ramadan. The Germans will be ones to watch in future junior meets, as all athletes still have one, two, or even three years of eligibility left.
In solo, Klara Bleyer was just as impressive. She has been the nation’s soloist since 2017 in the youth, then junior international meets. In Malta, she reached 81.8667 in the free routine with a solo set to music from the movie “The Master and Margarita.”
Unfortunately in tech, she received a zero after doing on extra quarter turn on her combined spin element, which dropped her down to 13th place. It was a shame as she was so solid throughout the routine, and particularly on all of her spins. Finally, the new duet of Bleyer and Susana Rovner also fared extremely well, particularly in tech as it improved from 2019 by 5.6 points.
It was great to see France send a full squad again to these championships. The country only had a solo, duet, and mixed duet in 2019. For the technical team, the French used the former senior routine set to Aretha Franklin’s “Think,”and earned 82.7496. In free, it used the choreography from the Pays d’Aix Natation club for a score of 83.8000. The Italians, who much like the French had limited training time together as a team, also re-used some former senior choreographies. They scored 84.6485 in tech, and 86.2333 in free.
Overall, everybody was ecstatic to finally get an opportunity to compete again face-to-face. It was fantastic to see such a wide array of nations, from the traditional European powerhouses like Russia, Ukraine or Spain, to some developing synchro nations like Georgia, Slovenia or Malta. Georgia‘s soloist Maria Alavidze was actually the youngest of the field at only 14 years old.
The host country was also able to field a full team for the free combination event. The Maltese athletes were beside themselves with joy after seeing their score of 69.8667. They have only been able to train together for five months, and could not dream of a better score for their international debuts.
Finally, Belgium participated in the European Junior Championships in duet for the first time. Helene De Decker and Hannah Samyn swam in that event, while Leila Grumiaux was entered in the solo. The country does also regularly attend the COMEN Cup, and Grumiaux actually last competed in the 2019 edition.
All results, along with some video links, are available on this page.
ARTICLE BY CHRISTINA MARMET
Cover photo by Walter Sargent
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