“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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OH my goodness, such a comprehensive look at our new rules. I have been involved for 40+ YEARS, and find the whole thing rather baffling. However, the need for change was huge. In the old system, there was a lot of room and opportunity for bias, which seems greatly reduced now. Difficulty was often not acknowledges or rewarded. Artistry was rewarded, but often disproportionately. I am hopeful that the kinks will work themselves out and the sport will benefit in the long run. Thanks for your thoughtful article.
I absolutely agree. A change was needed. I just think maybe we overcorrected a bit too much and too far the opposite way, valuing difficulty way too much at the expense of everything else (including the well-being of most athletes and coaches). Some things that should have been anticipated, in my opinion, were not. I do want to remain hopeful as well that it all balances itself out, but I truly hope it will be sooner rather than later.
How can it be that arm sections/body boosts aren’t included in DD? I find that ridiculous
The change was needed for our sport as it became too predictable and prejudged. However,I do agree that DD is killing creativity and all routines look painfully similar. The easiest solution is to increase % value for artistic score contribution towards final result. And off course Elements judges to evaluate low execution as per judges manual and as per historical ranking
Absolutely. The quickest fix is indeed to change the factors and balance the math out. Then, maybe once the Olympic qualifiers are over, work with a new difficulty table that caps the twists (please god) and everything that is not at this stage.
Although still disappointed I am also glad to read the same opinion from someone much closer to the events and with so much more knowledge. I was truly sad and confused watching the competition, I did not even manage to keep watching. What I always found so amazing in our sport was that perfection was still the goal, something that was always a little less present in other similar disciplines where difficulty became the top priority. Watching an AS routine always gave me goosebumps (even at smaller local competitions), the story, the musicality, the perfection, all together in the same performance. This time, I was just watching movements and did not feel the spark. There was just no room left for the athletes to put the artistic in the swimming.
Indeed I hope the new situation will become more balanced and we get to a point where the scoring improvements actually have improved our discipline as a whole.
Thank you so much for the insights!
Since the Italian nationals, World Serie Canada, I have felt that there is an overestimation of the difficulty and an underestimation of the choreographic part…. It is true that we have to go through changes to evolve… and change generates discomfort… but… I love this sport, free routines, because they were free, open to creativity, and with so many rules we no longer feel that enthusiasm of surprise, innovation of different movements….
I hope that this could be an experimental season and that the rules could change again….
I really agree with the article. Yes, change was needed but not revolution. The artistry must return to our beautiful sport or it will loose any audience appeal. Some readjustments need consideration
Thank you for your great article, I think you said what we all think about these new rules and hopefully some adjusments will soon come. I’d like to add that I feel like these rules arent good for the 12 and under category. Our country is not that good and we found it very difficult to write a suitable routine for the kids, since they swim it differently with each try… lifts were probably the worst part. Because for a nine year old its kind of difficult to do the jump same every time…
This has actually come up quite a few times in all the comments and messages I’ve received. It’s very hard and discouraging for the little ones, as well as for their coaches in terms of choreographies and just… fun.
I think that a change was needed and nobody was expecting such a huge change from the new rules. We all know it’s going to take time to see where it has to be adapted and for that we need more data to analyze. We only have done 2 international competitions and all thee needed changes have been noted. A big change it’s going to happen after the World Championships in Fukuoka. I personally think the apnea time will be balanced once we have the difficulty in the transitions too, other wise we will be soon all time underwater! The judges need to follow the rule book for execution and artistic impression because they are still biased on the name of the country. If the height is the ceiling for execution, this still didn’t happen and they have to do it even if that country is usually a top country. It’s a new game with new rules but I think soon we will find the best way to find the balance like other sports did when they changed. Rhythmic gymnastics it’s a good example, they did the same as us and had to re-adapt. Step by step we will find the best way!
Would it be fair though to make changes after the World Championships? That would mean some countries would qualify to Paris with one system, and others with a different system.
I agree with everything else you said.
Amazing article! 👏
Super interesting opinion piece. I also noticed the “twist, down, up, twist, down” hybrids and asked myself, “why do they keep dropping their legs into tabletop or tuck, it’s really breaking the fluidity and artistic aspect of the hybrid”.
I do believe the system is better in terms of fairness, but I think there is a long way to go for everyone to get the hang of it while keeping the artistic aspect.
For sure. These were valued way too high and are way easier and faster to do than anything else. For example, in R7 (valued 0.70 and with no limits of how many you can do), you have both a combined spin 720°, and unbalanced twist 360°. In terms of time, both to set-up and to execute, it makes zero sense to do the combined spin. For one combined spin 720°, you could do three unbalanced twist 360°. And that’s what everyone is doing. Twist, down to tuck. Twist, down to tuck.
Love your honest assessment! It’s important to speak openly about how the system is working on the ground so we can iterate and improve.
I completely agree. I still love to watch a performance, but watching a competition is no fun this way. Objectifying difficulty was necessary, but without objectifying execution (or without making use of that), it still isn’t fair. I hope we can reward artistry again soon, because these changes didn’t work out the way they were supposed to.
And then we’re talking about international elite senior level, I don’t even want to know what this does to children. And for recreational swimmers competing under these rules isn’t fun at all. I hope Masters won’t take over these regulations, otherwise I’ll just perform in my own club…
Thank you Christina,I am totally understanding your feelings,BUT:
I think we needed these changes. Of course the program is still far from ideal, but I am sure that we are on the right track. For countries trying to climb the world rank, it was almost impossible under the old rules. No matter what you did in the competition, no matter how much difficulty you add – you get your 7-8 points. So first of all, I think that I should say a huge thank you to the people who spent a huge amount of their personal time (I note for free).Yes, the programs have become uninteresting in their general mass, they look alike and, I’m afraid that at the next competitions someone will have to jump into the water after their athletes, since the programs for the World Cup will be at the limit of human capabilities.
Yes, many coaches will not sleep at night due to the fact that their athlete lost through their fault (incorrectly filled out coaching card). Yes, we will say more than once that all programs are similar to each other, but I am sure that there will be coaches and athletes who, even with these rules, will be able to make choreographic masterpieces. We will all learn and return artisticism to our sport, but with objective refereeing, difficulties will make it possible for countries not from the “historically established top ten” to compete for medals.
So I say a big thank you to the people who have made a difference in our sport. And let’s criticize less and work more and help change the rules. How many coaches have spent their time and written proposals to FINA when asked?