Mon, September 23, 2013

Gatineau's Leclair, Thomas rise in sync

Years of hard work, sacrifice lead to Olympics

By TIM BAINES, QMI Agency


Karine Thomas competes at 2009 FINA World Aquatic Championships. (Synchro Canada photo)

OTTAWA - For Gatineau’s Stephanie Leclair and Karine Thomas, the Olympics are the pinnacle, the cherry on top for years and years of exhausting practice in a swimming pool.

By now, you’d think their smiles would be wearing out. Showing those pearly whites is so important in their sport — synchronized swimming.

But it won’t be difficult to flash an ear-to-ear grin, especially if they can achieve their goal — winning an Olympic medal in London.

“Going to the Olympics ... it’s a dream come true,” said 22-year-old Leclair, who moved to Montreal to train with the national team when she was 15. “It’s been so many years of working so hard, with a lot of sacrifices. I’ve been away from my family since I was 15.

“The first year was really tough. I had to get used to a schedule and my parents weren’t there. I had to make new friends, there was more training ... it was very hard.”

“The Olympics are the ultimate dream for any athlete,” said Thomas, 23. “I’ve been training for this my whole life.”

Leclair was able to swim without floaters when she was three. By the age of four, she was already telling people she wanted to go to the Olympics.

As a teen, she saw the national synchronized swimming team do a dynamic routine. She was awed by the amazing display of strength, flexibility, acrobatics and artistic appearance. And if she wasn’t already moving toward an Olympic goal, she upped the ante and strengthened her resolve.

Thomas was also working her way up the ladder, entrenching herself as one of the country’s best.

She was inspired by 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.

“How amazing was that ... in our own country? I was so inspired to see us win medals left and right.”

As a kid, Thomas was also involved in soccer, gymnastics, diving, swimming, football and nearly any sport you can imagine.

“I just like synchronized swimming more than the others,” she said.

“You really bloom very late in this sport. For the first three years, you look like you’re drowning.”

The swimmers are in a sport where the team selection process is tough. On any given day, one athlete can perform better than another.

“You’re always kind of in that selection process,” said Thomas. “We’re totally replaceable. I don’t see it as pressure. It’s just the best way to see that we have the best team at all times.”

Their routines promise to be spectacular, perhaps enough to elevate the team onto the medal podium.

Their technical routine will have a soccer theme. Their free program, a day later, will have a circus theme, inspired by Cirque de Soleil.

Canada’s synchronized swimmers know if they put it all out there in that London pool, all those hours, all those compromises will be worth it.

“My road has been bumpy,” said Thomas. “There have been so many sacrifices. The people that get to where we are have to make those sacrifices. When you’re going through it, you question yourself a lot. But it’s been worth it.”