With Canada’s newest astronaut, David Saint-Jacques, now aboard the International Space Station, one of Canada’s artistic swimming community is preparing for a future space endeavour of her own.
Only when she looked back on her school projects, did Bethany Downer realize how much she loved space as a child while growing up in St. John’s, Newfoundland. “It only clicked in when I looked back and saw that all my science projects had been done on asteroids or comets, and my ‘hero’ projects were always about female astronauts.”
And now, as the first scientist-astronaut candidate from Newfoundland, recently selected for project PoSSUM (Polar Sub-orbital Science in the Upper Mesosphere) which trains the next generation of space travelers, the 24-year old is grateful for her artistic swimming background as well.
Searching for a sport to call her own, an 8-year old Bethany had started to take up diving. She recalls standing on the 3-meter diving platform and seeing a group of synchronized swimmers doing land drills on the pool deck. “I immediately realized I was on the wrong side of the pool,” she recalls. “I quickly switched from diving to synchro, and I never looked back!”
She began swimming recreationally, and within a year had moved to the competitive realm with the St. John’s Sea Stars. By Grade 8, she was swimming frequently before school, while her supportive parents drove her every morning. She built training into her daily academic schedule, heading again to afternoon practices once school was out.
“Synchro grabbed my attention. It was the most beautiful and motivating sport that combined athleticism with artistry,” she explains about why the sport captivated her. “It was such a great fit once I got started!”
Bethany swam competitively through Grade 12 and when she started her university career at Memorial University in St. John’s, she transitioned from swimmer to coach. And she discovered that she loved the sport even more from the sidelines! She’s very excited to see one of the athletes she worked with, Catherine Barrett, now representing Canada as a member of Canada Artistic Swimming’s Senior National Team.
After finishing her geography undergraduate degree at Memorial, Bethany was one of only 40 students accepted into the master’s program at the prestigious International Space University in Strasbourg, France. Then she moved to the Netherlands, and established her own company, which revolves around converting technical space jargon into simple English, and public speaking to kids and adults to make them excited about space.
And now, she’s just begun her adventure with PoSSUM in Daytona Beach, Florida where she did initial scientist-astronaut training and coursework. She was one of 12 people in the intensive program taught by former NASA astronaut instructors and PoSSUM team scientists. Some aspects of the program include high-G aerobatic flight training (to experience higher gravitational forces like those experienced during rocket liftoff and re-entry to Earth), crew resource management training, spacesuit training, high-altitude training, biometric analysis, and camera operations. Bethany will be returning to the United States throughout 2019 to pursue other various research areas with PoSSUM, including Martian and Lunar geology, spaceflight physiology, and life support systems.
And yes, she had to be fitted for a space suit for the course – which is slightly different than the type of suits worn back in her artistic swimming days. But she is grateful for the background in the pool, which was an important element for any training or aspiring astronaut. “Even space walks are practiced underwater before going into space, so most astronaut program applications stress a strong comfort level with water. I was able to emphasize my several years as a synchronized swimmer in my application.”
She outlined the strong correlation of synchro to space preparation. “Government agency astronauts are typically trained in large pools, such as NASA’s Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory of the Johnson Space Center. This is a giant underwater training facility – larger than an Olympic-sized pool – that holds several components of the International Space station at the bottom for detailed training and manoeuvre practice. These underwater conditions allow for the trainees to experience different gravity environments. In space, astronauts will be floating around in the absence of gravity, so training underwater is the next best thing.”
There is even a special technique used to simulate weightlessness. “The astronauts training in the ocean or a pool are placed in a state of balance in which they neither sink nor float (called neutral buoyancy). To do this, the perfect weight is added to their underwater space suit. Astronauts are therefore trained to be very familiar with the underwater environment.”
Other aspects of her years of training were also helpful in both her academic and career pursuits and social connections.
- Time management. “I did not understand the importance of it until I went into my undergraduate and masters studies. Planning things ahead of time and knowing when I had to study to fit around the structure of synchro at a young age, has helped me learn to organize and prioritize my everyday life – which is now very busy. This skill is very valuable.”
- “Physical activity was really important as I was growing up for physical and mental health. It’s a great way to clear your head if you’re having a bad day.”
- Friendship. “My duet partner, Katherine McKenney, and I recently met up in Amsterdam – it was great to connect even though we now live in different countries.”
Although when she happened to see a space shuttle launch back in 2007 when travelling in Florida with her family, Bethany didn’t know the exact path her life would turn. But since then she is committed to her personal mission: to inspire everyone from all walks of life to become engaged with space. She recently had the opportunity to meet Her Excellency the Right Honourable Julie Payette, Governor General of Canada and former Canadian Astronaut and discuss her passion over lunch. According to Bethany, “It was wonderful to discuss with her the new direction of the industry and about my ambitions to bring space interests and careers closer to home for those in Newfoundland.”
She frequently quotes the phrase “rocket science” as a deterrent from pursuing space interests because it is perceived as complex and unattainable. Bethany’s talks and outreach work are largely focused on altering this perception to help emphasize that all disciplines and all backgrounds are needed for the next era in space exploration. While astronomy research is answering some of humanity’s biggest questions, space tourism and humans on Mars are events that are just years away.
Despite a busy schedule, she stays connected to her artistic swimming community and follows Canada Artistic Swimming on social media as much as she can. And takes in a water show or competition whenever she gets back to St. John’s.
When asked what she wishes she had known as a young artistic swimmer growing up in Newfoundland, she said, “I wish someone had told me it didn’t matter at what level I was swimming, whether it be provincial, or Atlantic, Eastern Canada or national, that I was still developing skills that were going to be important for a lifetime. I was not the top national stream swimmer, by no means. But I’m very proud of what came out of it.”
And she also wants anyone taking up a sport or a pursuit to know that “It is important to focus on how I can better myself. Not only through synchro skills, but how could I better discipline myself. Any personal skills that you can develop through synchro can have a tremendous effect on who you are as a person. And I think those can translate to other things that will carry on with you later in life. It’s important to focus on even the little things. While I’m sitting in splits, maybe I’ll hold it 10 seconds longer. While I’m doing a workout, maybe I’ll add 100 meters this time. Maybe I’ll show up 10 minutes earlier tomorrow morning for practice. These little things contribute to your sense of discipline over time.”
The discipline instilled by her involvement in artistic swimming have taken Bethany on an unbelievable journey so far, and she hopes it will take her to space and perhaps beyond. In October 2018, Bethany was honoured by Memorial University, when she received the 2018 Horizon Award, for exceptional achievement by a Memorial University graduate 35 years of age and younger. She has also twice been named one of Canada’s Top 30 Under 30 and in 2018 was named one of the world’s Top 35 Under 35 in space.
Follow along with Bethany on her journey: