At 34, Renaud Barral is one of the most seasoned male artistic swimmers of the field. He started synchro at the age of 12, competed for the first time at 13, and hasn’t stopped since.
When he was 20, Barral joined the masters category and enjoyed tremendous opportunities, like competing at the Men’s Cup or becoming a mixed duet world champion in 2017. However, after over a decade improving in the masters, he realized he had some unfinished business. Last season and after completely changing his training regimen, he made his international debut on the elite stage representing Belgium.
Throughout his career, Barral has always wanted to push the envelope and to capture people’s attention on topics that matter to him. After an intense first year in elite culminating in great performances at the European Championships, he is ready for the next challenges ahead, and most importantly to continue enjoying the artistic freedom the sport provides.
Inside Synchro: You’ve been doing artistic swimming for nearly 23 years already ; that’s incredible! Tell me how you got started in the sport.
Renaud Barral: Thank you (laughs). One summer, my sister and I were playing in the swimming pool trying to recreate that last scene from Titanic between Jack and Rose. Yes, that one. Our mom saw us and decided to sign my sister up for synchro. Of course, I also wanted to do it. I tried it and was hooked right away. That was in 2000 when I was 12 years old.
The following year, I started competing in team and solo. I really believe synchro is my first love and love at first sight. Being able to be in the water while being my flamboyant and true self has been the best thing since day one. I love looking for and thinking about music, themes, stories, and cool moves I could try. As I told you before, my former coach Bérangère Capdevielle played a big role in my beginnings, and she was my anchor in the sport for a long time. She nurtured that passion in me and fired me up to keep training and to keep pushing.
IS: How was it for you growing up as an artistic swimmer?
RB: Honestly, I was just so happy to be doing what I loved. I have to admit that it was hard to relate to other athletes in the sport. There weren’t many male swimmers I could look up to, other than Bill May who I idolized. I was really looking up to him, as well as Virginie Dedieu who was at the height of her career and doing unique, incredible moves.
Within my own team, everything was fine and I always felt welcomed. I swam in the team routines for most of my childhood and teenage years, as well as in the solo. It was a bit more difficult when we would go to competitions. Sometimes, I felt I wasn’t always welcomed in this “women” world. All the criticism and offensive comments I heard mostly came from adults, honestly. But I didn’t really let it get to me ; I loved synchro too much. And here I still am, two decades later.
IS: You competed in masters for 10 years before going elite. Usually, artistic swimmers do it the other way around. What went into this decision?
RB: First, I wanted to challenge myself. Then, I felt deep inside I had something more to offer and that I needed to push boundaries. I wanted to bring Belgium back to the highest competition scene and to be looked on as serious competitors. Even though we are a small country, we can achieve a lot. Now, I want to inspire the next generation of athletes and show them that anything is possible.
IS: I believe it did end up being a challenge and a rollercoaster of a year. Can you tell me a bit more about your 2022 season?
RB: Yes it was! With my duet partner Lisa [Ingenito], we asked for Susanna de Angelis’ help to plan our training and conditioning. I have actually known Susanna for 13 years. We met at the Men’s Cup in 2009, my first masters meet. She was there with Giorgio [Minisini, her son], and we have kept in touch this whole time.
It wasn’t too hard to convince her, but she actually lives and works in Switzerland. So at first, we were a bit on our own. We agreed on the music and then I started to create the routines. Little by little, we collaborated with many coaches, and received feedback from international coaches and judges. We continuously made adjustments and kept building on that. It was honestly a huge puzzle all year, trying to find coaches that were near us but also getting pool slots and juggling our full-time jobs. So many people helped us ; it truly was a team effort.
We were set on the European Championships in Rome. However, we had a scoring limit from the federation that we had to reach first. We competed a lot throughout the season, but we still hadn’t scored the required points at our last meet. Needless to say, we were heartbroken.
The World Championships were happening simultaneously, so we were also watching that to cheer ourselves up. But that’s also when we realized we just couldn’t give up. I remember texting a lot with Giorgio [Minisini] at that time while he was competing at Worlds. He comforted me a lot, and told me to trust the process because he knew I belonged next to all of them. I just knew I should keep fighting, and I did.
You know, I had stars in my eyes for the first time after working with Bérangère. After this talk with Giorgio, it felt like that all over again. It was like I got a second wind. He allowed me to dream again, and I owe him a great deal.
IS: Then, finally, you competed at the European Championships in the mixed duet. How did it feel?
RB: It was super emotional. I think I cried every day. It was really an out-of-body experience. The stars aligned, and everything went right. I really felt like I belonged, and I tried to spread as much love as I received.
Before the meet, we trained full-time for one month in Italy with Susanna and other coaches, including Benedetta Alderighi who is our full-time coach now. Essentially, we trusted Susanna blindly. She made us so much stronger physically and mentally. It was very hard, but she completely changed our mental state. She knew exactly what we needed at the right time. Once in Rome, she was able to take the pressure off and to have us fully enjoy the experience.
The moment I stepped on the deck for our free routine, I was in a bubble with Lisa and I just had to do what I knew how to do. Right after we finished, I could feel the energy of the pool all at once. I saw Susanna in tears, which usually indicates that it was good and that she was proud of us.
IS: What is your biggest takeaway from this first elite experience?
RB: That’s a tough one… It’s too hard to narrow it down, so I’ll give you three. The first one is, miracles happen in training, and you can repeat them in competition. Train hard and enjoy everything. Then, spread love and be ready to receive a lot back. Finally, give your whole body and soul when you swim because people will feel it.
IS: What are your goals for 2023 and for the long-term?
RB: Looking back, it’s incredible to see how much we’ve improved in 2022. Overall this year, we want to climb the rankings. With Susanna and Benedetta by our side, we are in a great place. Our main goal in mixed duet is to go to the World Championships in Fukuoka and qualify for the finals.
Then, I’d like to do a proper debut in the men’s solo. I did a short solo in the gala in Rome and received a lot of positive feedback and comments. Besides, I’ve swam in this event almost ever since I started in the sport, and I’m so excited that it’s now possible to do it at the World Championships. That would be an incredible experience that I hope I can make come true.
In the long-term, of course, the Olympics. We hope that the Los Angeles Games in 2028 will welcome mixed duets. This is our biggest dream, and we need to give it a shot.
IS: Well, can you give us a little preview of your solos?
RB: Of course! For my technical routine, I wanted to do something I don’t usually do, so I am swimming to “I Just Want to Make Love to You” by Etta James. It’s going to be playful and joyful with a dash of sexiness and humor. Well, while I am not performing all the technical elements (laughs)!
My free is a bit more complex. I wanted to do something that was… committed. I will swim to “Masculinity” by Lucky Love. When I first heard the song, I was completely obsessed. It took some convincing with my coaches, but I know that I can do something deep and powerful with that song. People might expect a routine on strength and power, but it will be more about the exploration of gender. A sort of deconstruction of the patriarchy and toxic masculinity.
I also want to show some vulnerability. I know how labeled our sport can be, and many young queer kids don’t identify in the binary system of gender. With this, I want to prove that sometimes, we need to push doors wide open so people can set themselves free to do what feels right for them. It’s time to challenge the pre-established norms. Solos give me this freedom and creativity to do something different.
IS: Any final words to the synchro community or to younger artistic swimmers?
RB: We received a lot of support this past season from a lot of people, and from the whole mixed duet community, so I am super grateful and lucky. What keeps me going in this sport is the camaraderie and seeing all these young and new faces. They are the ones who made me understand I wasn’t done yet and that I still had something to bring to the table.
Synchro has been my pillar, and what keeps me grounded every day. Yes, it’s hard, but it transcends everything and will teach you a lot about yourself and how to be a better person. Always remember that you are competing against yourself and with others. There is no need for animosity between athletes from different clubs or countries. I promise you, when you are there, when they say your name and country, when you wear your federation’s gear, and when you swim: all sacrifices are worth it.
ARTICLE BY CHRISTINA MARMET
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