Three Olympic Games. Two Olympic, 23 World and 12 European medals. Spain’s Ona Carbonell is currently FINA’s most decorated female athlete, and undoubtedly one of the most successful artistic swimmers.
After over 12 years competing at the senior elite level, Carbonell announced in the fall of 2019 that she would step away from the pool to focus on her family life for a while. In February 2020, she revealed she was pregnant with her first child. Obviously, participating in the Tokyo Games was out of the question, and already thinking about her comeback seemed ludicrous.
A few weeks later, the Covid-19 pandemic hit, forced millions of people into lockdowns and halted the entire sports calendar. Eventually, the Olympics were postponed to the summer of 2021. By a curious twist of fate, Carbonell now potentially had enough time to return for Tokyo. With the full support of everybody around her, she made up her mind and aimed for what would be her third Games.
This journey back to the top level of her sport will be available to watch in the movie ‘Ona Carbonell: Starting Over’. From the birth of her son Kai in August 2020 up until the Tokyo Games one year later, the viewers will follow her along as she goes through the ups and downs and attempts one of the biggest challenges of her life. Intimate and emotional, this first-person account also sheds light on what it means to simultaneously be a parent and an elite athlete, and on the struggles mothers face in the sports industry.
Inside Synchro: How did this movie come about?
Ona Carbonell: A few people asked me to do it but I didn’t want to at first. I am a very private person; I never put my personal life on social media or out in public. For me, it’s very important to keep this privacy. But they kept asking. Finally I thought it would be a good opportunity to show motherhood in sports. It’s not easy, and we need more help. A lot of my sports friends also want to be mothers, but they are afraid to lose their careers, their medal opportunities, their sponsors, the money… In the beginning, I was as well but I also don’t want sports to be like this. I want to break the stigma that motherhood and elite sport are incompatible. I really believe you can be both a mom and a professional athlete.
So, I said yes but under certain conditions. For example, I asked never to show the face of Kai; that was very important to me. We started filming after I gave birth, but it was very difficult because of Covid-19. We had a lot of rules in the CAR high-performance center (Centre d’Alt Rendiment Sant Cugat) and within the national team. A lot of times, I simply recorded myself with my cellphone, or some of my teammates did because nobody else could be around us or could travel with us to competitions. But in the end, the images are very real, sincere, and personal.
IS: You were never really supposed to go to Tokyo in the first place. Once the Olympics were postponed, did you immediately know you wanted to try to comeback for it?
OC: It was very strange. Originally, I had said no to these Olympics. I stopped synchro to start a family and to rest a little. Then, they were postponed but I really wasn’t thinking about them at all. I was pregnant; I wanted to enjoy my pregnancy and then my baby. Tokyo wasn’t on my mind at all!
Soon after the IOC announced the news, Mayu [Fujiki, Spain’s head coach] called me. She said, “Ona, did you see the news? You can come back and compete!” I told her it was impossible. She really believed that I could do it, and that they could help me. I started to think about it. My husband looked at me like I was crazy (laughs)!
One month before I was due, I finally decided. I told Mayu I would try but that I wasn’t sure how it would be. It was my first child so I had no idea how everything would go, but I wanted to give it my all. We had one or two meetings to discuss the organization of the year, and everything started after the birth of Kai. I am very grateful to have always had her and the team’s full backing and trust. All women should have this kind of support, especially from their workplace.
IS: Overall, how was returning to elite and to the Games less than one year after having Kai?
OC: It was crazy, and very hard. I started exercising again maybe one month and a half after giving birth. But I had abdominal separation and a lot of loose muscles, so I followed a specific training plan for myself. Besides, I couldn’t train or move too much while I was pregnant because of the pandemic and the lockdowns. So, it had been a while since I had done any sort of training.
At first, Mayu gave me until mid-November before returning to the team. I had a personal trainer, and I swam and exercised near my house. I was conditioning by myself, but it was nice because I could be home faster and stay longer with my baby. Mayu and my trainer talked every day and monitored my progress, and sent videos back and forth. I started learning the team routines too because I didn’t know anything. Finally, in December, we did a training camp in Lanzarote, and that was the first time I trained with the team.
I was the reserve at first. Mayu and I had always agreed that the team would not wait for me. They would keep working normally and I would just have to adapt. Whenever I would be ready and up to the level, then I would join. Luckily, Mayu paced me really well. At first, I only did the technical team. For example at Europeans in May, I only competed in that event. While the team stayed longer for the free team, I was able to go home, spend time with Kai, and rest. Eventually, I joined the free team too for Tokyo. It was a very fast comeback; I had less than one year. Thankfully I had a great organization and support system around me.
IS: What would you say was the hardest thing throughout it all?
OC: I wasn’t sleeping. During the Olympics, I was very, very tired… Yes, I was in good shape, but I could also tell in the water that I had never been so tired before in my life (laughs).
During the year with Mayu and our team doctor, we tried to have me rest as much as possible. It was very difficult. I would wake up four or five times a night to feed Kai, and then I would have to be at CAR at 6:45 a.m. Then, before Kai, I would arrive at home after training and do physio, ice my legs, rest, or analyze training videos. Now, I don’t have time. I get home and I only want to be with my son, to play with him, to feed him… My priorities have changed. My whole life has. It isn’t only synchro anymore…
IS: What do you hope the takeaway from this movie will be?
OC: My dream is that this helps other women in our sport, but really in all sports. Society needs to help us more if we want to be mothers and continue our professional careers. It’s possible to combine the two, but we need more help financially, logistically, morally… There are a lot of examples, like Serena Williams, Alex Morgan, or Allyson Felix. They all came back and did a great job, but it’s so few if we compare women and men. A lot of men in sports are fathers, but not a lot of women are mothers. We have a lot of difficulties, it’s not the norm and it’s not so much accepted by society. So, I really want to fight for that equality between men and women in sports when it comes to becoming parents.
Follow Ona Carbonell’s journey to Tokyo in ‘Ona Carbonell : Starting Over’, out on March 2 for free on Rakuten TV. Subtitles will be available in five languages.
She is now pregnant with her second child, and continues to train and swim twice a week.
ARTICLE BY CHRISTINA MARMET
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