The 2023 World Championships in Fukuoka only ended seven months ago, but the aquatics world is already preparing for the next ones, this time in Doha. The artistic swimming events start on Friday, February 2, with stakes higher than usual. Indeed, these World Championships serve not only as a season-opener in this Olympic year, but also as a last-chance qualifier for this summer’s Games in Paris.
The Olympic Events
Undoubtedly, all eyes will be on the team and duet events in Doha as the rest of the Olympic field will be determined. By the look of the entries across all events, it is clear that many nations have decided to focus solely on these events.
Five more countries will qualify to the Games in the team event by the conclusion of this competition, hence completing the 10-team Olympic field. To gain a ticket to Paris, nations that have not already qualified have to finish in the top five with the total combined score (all mathematical logic set aside) of the three team events: technical, free and acrobatic. The duet of each of these five nations will also automatically earn a spot to the Games.
Japan, Spain, the USA, Italy, and Ukraine, all countries that came away with one or more team medals at last year’s World Championships, are undoubtedly contenders for an Olympic berth. All should benefit from their full-strength rosters, although a few see minor changes since Fukuoka.
Japan has shown consistency and impressive routines throughout the 2023 season, and certainly heads into Doha as one of the favorites to qualify, barring a disaster. The nation has been at every single Olympic Games in every event since the sport was introduced, and that streak doesn’t appear to be stopping anytime soon. The team recently won silver at the Asian Games, and has already qualified its duet to Paris. Unlike in Fukuoka, Sato Yotaro will not appear in the team routines as he wasn’t called up at all for this competition.
As the reigning European Champion in both technical and free team, as well as World Champion in technical team, Spain adapted quickly to the new rules and is another favorite to qualify again. However, the nation hasn’t yet competed in the acrobatic team under the new system, and hence will not have any room for mistakes for its first time out. Besides the new acrobatic routine, the Spaniards also plan to debut a new technical team choreography.
Italy, three-time European medalists in 2023 and reigning vice-World Champion in technical team, aims to qualify a team for the third Olympics in a row. Giorgio Minisini will make his anticipated return to the world stage after missing out on Fukuoka with a knee injury. He should be expected in the acrobatic team routine, where the country will unveil a new choreography to the theme of “The Venice Carnival”. The Italians will also perform a new technical team routine, set to “Disco Dance”.
World medals aren’t the only indicator as to who to keep an eye out for in the road to Paris. Sometimes, consistency is more valuable, as demonstrated by the team of Israel last season. Two-time European medalist in 2023, the nation gained momentum from one competition to the next and showed extensive understanding of the intricacies of the new system. Looking at the combined scores from Fukuoka, Israel would actually figure in the top five amongst the countries not yet qualified.
Canada and Greece had both qualified to the Tokyo Olympic Games and are certainly aiming to repeat their feat. The former will benefit from the return of veteran and two-time Olympian Jacqueline Simoneau, who is at this time listed in the technical team event.
Four of the other countries already qualified to Paris will compete in Doha: China — reigning World Champions in free team and acrobatic team —, Australia, Egypt and Mexico. The Mexican team will however only appear in the acrobatic team event. As the host, France is also already qualified, but the nation has opted out of Doha entirely to focus on its Olympic preparation.
As mentioned previously, the five countries that qualify to Paris in team will also automatically earn a spot in the duet competition. Besides these, a few additional duet quotas — between 3 and 6 — will be up for grabs in Doha. The exact number depends on the qualified teams and the potential reallocation of continental duet quotas. Based on the competition schedule, that will not be known until after the conclusion of the team events, which will be after the duet events have ended.
The combined total of the technical and free scores will determine which pairs, amongst the ones not already qualified, will travel to the French capital in August. A total of 18 duets, four less than in Tokyo, will be in Paris.
The duet competition in Doha is shaping up to be intense and tight, with over 40 nations on the entry list. Naturally, it includes duets already qualified to Paris like Japan, China, and Mexico, and some simply looking to put their countries on the map at the World Championships level. Japan‘s Higa Moe and Yasunaga Mashiro are only listed at this time for the technical duet event, in which they will aim to defend their World title from last year.
Unfortunately, the reigning World Champions in the free duet, Anna-Maria and Eirini Alexandri of Austria, have had to withdraw from the competition as announced today due to acute pains in Anna-Maria’s shoulder.
“It all started in Fukuoka and the pain has kept coming back ever since. It was a dislocation and it hasn’t completely healed yet. We tried physio to get everything under control. Unfortunately, things haven’t gotten any better. You can’t take any risks during the Olympic season. We want to go to Paris 100 percent fit and give our best possible performance there.
We prepared very intensively for Doha. It’s painful that we can’t start now. This World Cup would have been the first stop for us on the way to the Olympic Games. Of course it’s a small setback for us, but we’ll come back even stronger. Now we take the necessary break and the various therapies and then we look ahead towards Paris. We will now focus all our strength on Vaso and support her as best we can so that she is successful here.”
Amongst those unaffiliated with a team, the pairs of the Netherlands and Great Britain are certainly two to watch, returning the same Olympic athletes as in Tokyo: Bregje and Noortje de Brouwer for the former, and Kate Shortman and Isabelle Thorpe for the latter. A few other nations on the bubble for a duet spot include Portugal, South Korea, Liechtenstein, Brazil and Kazakhstan amongst others. Maria Goncalves and Cheila Vieira of Portugal will undoubtedly look to continue gaining momentum after making history for their country and qualifying to a World Championships final for the first time last July.
Of course, the fate of some of the top duets rests with the outcome of the team competition, like for the pairs of Spain, Italy, Israel, Ukraine or Greece for example. Italy’s Linda Cerruti and Lucrezia Ruggiero are set to unveil a new free choreography, “Angels and Demons”, while Spain’s Alisa Ozhogina and Iris Tio have been preparing a new technical duet. Both pairs medaled in the technical duet event at the last World Championships.
In terms of duet composition, Canada will present a new pair again to this competition, this time with Jacqueline Simoneau swimming alongside Audrey Lamothe. Lamothe had made her debut in the event with Olena Verbinska at the Pan American Games in November. Singapore is also sending a new duet, with Debbie Soh competing with 15-year-old Yvette Chong for the first time.
A few other nations will make exciting appearances in these duet events, such as Curacao, El Salvador, Georgia, Indonesia, Malta, Morocco, and Peru.
The USA has already qualified to the Games in duet, and will not compete in this event in Doha, focusing on the three team events instead.
The Non-Olympic Events
Naturally, the competition at these Doha World Championships will also include the Women Solos, the Men Solos, and the Mixed Duets.
The women’s solo events are certainly shaping up to be incredibly interesting, likely filled with many “firsts” and record-breaking finishes. A lot of the top countries and athletes, including last year’s medalists like Iris Tio of Spain or Kate Shortman of Great Britain, have been fully focusing on the Olympic qualification and will not compete in solo in Doha.
This particular setting, coupled with the recent retirement of the reigning World Champion Inui Yukiko, makes Vasiliki Alexandri of Austria the only returning World medalist. A two-time silver medalist in 2023 and event specialist, she is one of the favorites for the gold in Doha. Of course, Evangelia Platanioti of Greece, three-time Olympian and two-time World bronze medalist in 2022, is also eyeing that gold and a return to the world podium, especially after missing out in 2023.
A few wildcards will certainly make this solo competition interesting. As mentioned above, Jacqueline Simoneau of Canada returns to the world stage for the first time since the Tokyo Games and is set to compete in both solo events. Tokyo Olympian and 2021 European medalist Vasilina Khandoshka of the Belarus national team has been granted individual neutral status by World Aquatics and is thus eligible for this competition.
Khandoshka has solely been focusing on solo this year, and competed both routines at the Federation’s Cup last December. She notably recorded an impressive 38.90 DD in the free solo, only 0.05 behind Inui’s in 2023, and 34.35 in technical solo.
For the first time since 2015, China will have a soloist participate in the World Championships: Xu Huiyan. Xu last competed internationally at the 2019 World Youth Championships in the team routine, and will make her senior debuts in Doha. Jennifer Russanov of New Zealand will be another swimmer to watch, as she makes her return to the international stage. Russanov formerly represented Kazakhstan, and last competed at the 2019 World Championships.
Other notable performances and first-time appearances include Toulan Ben Abdel Fattah of Tunisia, Yasmina Rushaidat of Jordan, as well as Pinka Kekki and Sini Tuuli of Finland.
On the men’s side, 14 men are entered in the solo events, an increase since Fukuoka. World Champion Dennis Gonzalez Boneu of Spain will look to repeat his gold-medal performance and defend his title. Fellow teammate and reigning World Champion in the technical solo, Fernando Diaz del Rio Soto has retired from artistic swimming. Gonzalez Boneu is thus set to compete in both solos this time around. Naturally, the reigning European Champion Giorgio Minisini is also eyeing that podium and a first solo World title.
Besides Gonzalez Boneu, Fukuoka World medalists Kenny Gaudet (USA), Eduard Kim (Kazakhstan) and Gustavo Sanchez (Colombia) all return to the pool as well.
Young Chinese phenom Yang Shuncheng will make his first World Championships appearance. Based on his outing at the Soma Bay World Cup in 2023, he should certainly be considered a challenger for the podium. Similarly, Brazil’s Bernardo Santos and Sweden’s David Martinez are set for their first major international appearances. Martinez competed last season at the European Junior Championships.
Finally, 13 mixed pairs will compete in Doha. Italy will unveil a new pairing, with Minisini swimming alongside 19-year-old Susanna Pedotti for the first time, as Lucrezia Ruggiero has been focusing on the women’s duet and team routines. The Italians will however only compete in the technical event, swimming to Verdi’s Requiem.
The pairs of China, Spain and Mexico, all medalists in Fukuoka, return to the competition. The latter also sees a slight change in its composition, with Diego Villalobos partnered with Trinidad Meza and Miranda Barrera, likely to allow Itzamary Gonzalez to focus on the upcoming Olympics. Other experienced pairs such as Colombia, Serbia or Kazakhstan are part of the field as well.
Bulgaria and Sweden will make their first appearances in this event on the World Championships stage. Unfortunately, Japan, reigning World Champion in the technical mixed duet, is not entered in this event at all, and will hence not defend its title in Doha.
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ARTICLE BY CHRISTINA MARMET
Cover photo: Andrea Masini / Deepbluemedia
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