In the first event of the 2021 FINA Artistic Swimming World Series, presented virtually by USA Artistic Swimming, Canada’s Jacqueline Simoneau topped the field and won the gold medal in the Solo Free event.

Her score of 90.1000 was the highest of the seven athletes from Australia, Belarus, Liechtenstein, Spain, Sweden and the USA who took part in the event. American Anita Alvarez captured second place with 87.1333 points, and in third was Vera Butsel from Belarus, who won bronze with a score of 82.8000.

The athletes had all submitted their routines on video three weeks prior to the event, which was webcast last weekend, on February 20 and 21. There were strict guidelines around the recording; when it could be filmed and submitted to ensure fairness to all participants. Judges then watched the videos at the same time, in the format of a competition, and submitted their marks using an innovative web-based judging system developed in Canada. The marks were then added into a final production that was live streamed on the USA Artistic Swimming and FINAtv websites.

Jacqueline hadn’t competed her solo routine since the FINA World Championships in 2019 and had been focusing on preparation in Duet and Team for the upcoming Olympic Summer Games in Tokyo. However, with the opportunity to submit her solo free routine and represent Canada at the event, she went back to that same program for this event.

The music she used, SOS d’un terrien en détresse (SOS from an earthling in distress), was at once very close to home as well as fully international. The song, taken from a famous Quebec Rock Opera called Starmania, had lyrics from Quebec-based Luc Plamondon, with music from France’s Michel Berger and was sung by Kazakh artist Dimash Qudaibergen. Because he sang it in French, it created a special meaning to work on it alongside choreographer Karine Doré. As Program Logistics Specialist Isabelle Lecompte, who also loved the piece, observed, “it was neat to see people who really connected with the song.”

The choreography, originally created with Karine, the Assistant National Team coach, stayed the same, with a few adaptations for the way the video was filmed. Typically judges sit on both sides of the pool, but with just one video camera filming the routine, Jackie kept the routine balanced but targeted a bit more movement to the camera side.

Jacqueline gave credit to the team from Canada Artistic Swimming and the Institut national du sport (INS) du Québec for their support. They recreated the competitive atmosphere with banners and look elements surrounding the pool. She tried to “make it all seem as much like a competition as possible “ preparing at home the same way she would have if she were in a hotel, doing her makeup and hair, then donning her Canada track jacket, and listening to the same playlist as she does for any other competition. She did her usual pre-competition warm-up, saying “I tried to really simulate as much I could a competition.”

The routine featured Jacqueline’s trademark technical ability and athleticism, combined with her superb artistry and musical interpretation. She was pleased to hear commentators Bill May and Christina Jones on the live stream of the event note her height out of the water with effortless ease. They also highlighted her ability to connect with the music and perform even though there was no audience there in person to watch.  “That was one of my goals,” she said, “so I was glad that they were able to see that.”

Jacqueline watched the event as a spectator, without knowing the results. “It was quite neat, but also strange at the same time to see myself perform and compete.” She was already seeing a difference in the program and its evolution three weeks after the videotaping.  Having swum the program just this past week, she knows it has gotten even stronger since the January taping. “It was good to see the improvement and just how far it has come in the past few weeks.”

Reflecting on this virtual competitive experience, she sees the possibilities, “It’s great for different countries who perhaps don’t have the same resources to compete and now they actually have the opportunity. I think it was a really great initiative from FINA, and I’m proud that Canada and the USA are taking the lead on it.”

Although this was the first in-water virtual event for artistic swimming, it won’t be the last. Canada Artistic Swimming (CAS) will host a virtual FINA Artistic Swimming World Series event of its own, in May. National competitions in Canada will also be held in a similar way, with the 2021 National Qualifier planned for a virtual format April 8-11, 2021.