“So, what do you think?” was the question I was asked the most this past weekend at the Montpellier World Cup.
“Do you want my honest opinion?” was usually my answer.
Nearly every single time, we all reached the same conclusion: the Degree of Difficulty has taken over and the sport is slowly losing its soul.
When World Aquatics first announced that a World Cup leg would be in Montpellier, I was ecstatic. Finally, a massive international event of my favorite sport in my home city. I looked forward to this event for months, and as usual, was excited to attend my first in-person meet of the season.
Yet every evening, I walked home frustrated, baffled, disappointed. Mostly questioning myself. Where is the sport headed? Am I still enjoying it? Do I even want to come back tomorrow?
I came back. For the athletes, for the people, for the backstories I’m eager to share. But at the pool, the atmosphere was somber, overwhelming. The stress and worry of coaches were palpable. Athletes were, more often than not, in states of confusion, disbelief, or defeat after their swims. It was unlike anything I’d ever experienced.
The rankings were at times wacky and unfathomable. Seemingly bittersweet for some of the medal winners I spoke with. Heart-wrenching for the athletes who found out they dropped down because they started a hybrid two seconds early, missed 10cm in their traveling (how is this even being measured?), or because their Coach Card wasn’t filled out properly. Disconcerting for the crowd that was never given any explanations, left to grapple with the discrepancy between what they just watched and the final placements.
I get it, it is what it is. It’s new. It’s a learning curve. Coaches and athletes have to adapt and need to study the rulebook more intently. It is elite artistic swimming, after all, and mistakes should be reflected in the final score.
But often, I asked myself, what are we truly ranking and rewarding at this point? The coach’s strategy and ability to fill in paperwork correctly, or the athletes with the best technique, skills, execution, and choreography?
Only two things were on people’s minds: DD and Base Mark. Walking around the call room, it had become normal to hear, “Don’t worry about synchronization, just make sure you finish your rotations.” “Just complete all your hybrids and it’s okay if your execution isn’t as good.” “Get through the routine and try not to get a Base Mark.”
Because, does anything else even matter anymore?
Sure, the sport needed a change. One of the big selling-point of this system was to bring more unpredictability to the rankings. That’s undeniably happening. But at what cost?
Forget the rankings for now. What has become of artistic swimming? How did the DD take over everything so swiftly, so drastically?
To me, the essence of the sport was always that search for the perfect movement, for the flawless precision and execution. All, of course, as part of a whole, of a creative process around the music and choreography to obtain a memorable and unique routine.
Let’s be honest, artistic swimming has mostly become tedious to watch. And let’s not even get into the unbearably long waits for the scores. In the water, all the routines look similar. The same movements are repeated endlessly as everybody is doing the best they can to capitalize on the difficulty table. Who can blame them? Obviously, all are forced to play that game to stay competitive.
The issue is, the artistic of artistic swimming doesn’t really count for anything anymore. It is no longer the sacrosanct part of the sport that allowed the best of the best to stand out. So much for the name change. From now on, strategy and difficulty prevail. And the slightest mistake can be costly. Very costly. Too costly.
Mathematically, a high DD governs everything. With some levels in some families of movements not even capped, it’s easy to increase it fast. Then, what do we find ourselves with?
Uniform and formatted routines. Unbalanced 360° twist, down, two-direction twist 360°, down. Up, twist, down, up, twirl, down. Repeat seven times. Add in some flexed feet for the angle bonuses. Up, twist, down, up, twist left, twist right, down.
Solos have become an apnea competition. There’s truly no time for anything else, not even a deckwork. The athletes start in the water and barely finish on the music. Do your 15+ twists and twirls, get your 10.2 DD, and win. Choreography? Transitions? It won’t make a difference.
Certainly, coaches and athletes make the conscious choice to go for a high DD. They could very well do one easy hybrid here and there, thus leaving them more time to breathe, express themselves and perform. But then, they would also have to accept that they simply wouldn’t be competitive. Does a coach want to set their athletes up for failure before the meet even starts? Of course not.
Theoretically, the judges could, should, be able to balance it out. Choosing to value difficulty over choreography is one strategy. But then, that must translate into maybe receiving much lower marks in artistic impression. For lack of variety, poor transitions, no innovation of movements, or zero musicality. That’s not the case.
Increasing your DD at the last-minute is another strategy, although it probably means losing in height and execution. In the end, the DD will be the same whether the vertical is at crotch level or knee level. But do we see enough differentiation in execution scores at this time? Not yet.
So, the race to the highest DD goes on. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes, countries bite off more than they can chew and end in places that are not a true reflection of their abilities.
Fortunately, we were still able to see beautiful routines with great inventiveness, performance and musicality. But the execution and artistic marks that they received did not really make a huge difference in the end, especially compared to how much difficulty weighed in the final score.
So then, what will these countries do? The answer is always the same: “I’m just going to make changes after this meet, add difficulty and focus on nothing else.” Coaches will go home and only work with a calculator in their hands, hindered in their creative process, simply asking their swimmers to fit in one more twist, one more twirl. Because the numbers are what they are. Difficulty is the new keyword, not artistic, and insidiously looms over everything.
And, aren’t we stoking the flames? In Montpellier, all start lists were published as usual on Thursday, the day before the start of the competition. Except this time, everyone’s total declared DDs were listed in every single event.
And yet, coaches could still change their Coach Cards up to four hours before each event. That means that all free mixed duets or acrobatic teams had essentially three extra days to up their DDs and make changes. So once everybody knew what the others were doing, well, you guessed it, they all rushed to add difficulty. Screw execution and artistic impression; it won’t even make a big difference. Nor do TREs. So, better to gain two points in a free hybrid’s DD and lose a few tenths in the other categories. And, naturally, the ones who competed right away on Friday didn’t have that same luxury of time to change their routines.
Obviously, the system is here to stay and is undoubtedly a revolution. Of course, it takes some time for all to adapt, adjust and learn. But will time make any difference if it all stays so unbalanced?
We must recalibrate, and think about what we truly want to value most moving forward. Artistic impression must weigh more heavily in the total score, and the impact of free hybrids must be considerably reduced to halt this DD craze.
If not, it will only get worse. What will the routines look like by the time the World Championships come around? How many twists and twirls in a row can a human possibly do? How far can we keep pushing, not only the system but the athletes’ physical and mental abilities? Until at least five of them faint after their routines in one event at a competition? Well, we are already there.
Unfortunately, this system was launched in a pre-Olympic year. Olympic qualifying events start in a month and a half and won’t end until February 2024. What, how and when do we change to guarantee fairness while also ensuring artistic swimming doesn’t become all about difficulty, at the expense of what truly makes it… artistic swimming?
No matter what, we need to pivot fast to make sure our sport lives up to its name and finds its true essence once again.
ARTICLE BY CHRISTINA MARMET
Cover photo: Deepbluemedia
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