Synchronized swimmers don’t usually practise outdoors in the middle of winter.
But in Burnaby, they do.
On a January morning at Kensington Park Outdoor Pool, the athletes of Caprice Artistic Swim Club train outside in the open air, come wind, rain and cold.
For the last four months, the club’s swimmers have braved the cold to practise at the North Burnaby pool, after the closure of C.G. Brown Pool last October.
The air is about 3 C.
Girls in bathing suits shiver on the pool deck. Some wear fluffy snuggies or oversized swim ponchos as they run through drills.
Other swimmers have taken to wearing wetsuits in the pool.
The water temperature is cranked up to more than 30 C to compensate for the cold air.
Swimmers’ legs burst up from the water, splayed out and twirling in strict geometric patterns.
Then comes the rain.
Girls pull at their nose plugs and huddle on the pool wall listening to their coaches, keeping their bodies — everything below their ears — under the warm water and away from the cold air above.
A lament rings out from the younger athletes again and again: “I’m cold.”
Water drips from holes in a temporary deck cover, a tarp stretched over exposed metal scaffolding, looking more like an unfinished construction project.
In December, Mayor Mike Hurley called the cover “a complete embarrassment.”
The pool’s deck cover, built last October, not only has fist-sized holes all over, but it collects condensation on its underside, creating droplets which dribble onto the watching parents and coaches on the deck, entirely negating the cover’s purpose.
The changing room is a cheerful chaos as girls hunker under the warm showers — meanwhile, their bags of dry clothes get soaked on the ground. There’s nowhere to put them.
Jen McPherson, who’s a swimmer with Caprice herself, holds her daughter’s and other swimmers’ jackets like a coat hanger.
Multiple parents note that their kids’ dry clothes and bags have been rained on, despite the deck cover.
The young athletes say the water itself is warm, but since much of their practice is half out of the water, or listening to their coaches on the pool wall, the cold weather is a strain.
Apart from exposing the athletes to the elements, the outdoor situation has caused swimmers to drop out. The club of about 58 members has shrunk by about 13 per cent this year.
Club president Stephen Shimek said the outdoor practices have affected every family differently, but the drop in membership has had a “huge” impact on the teams.
Pool space is hard to come by regionally, and Shimek worries if the club loses members, it won’t be able to afford pool time when space becomes available.
Coach Melinda Markser called Kensington “the most frustrating pool to swim in.” When it rains, the coaches stand by the deep end (where there is no deck cover) with an umbrella.
But her concern is primarily for the athletes.
“The smallest athletes need to be the warmest. If they’re not comfortable, they’re not going to come back,” she said. “If we’re not able to build our base of young athletes, we won’t have athletes in three years. So, our club could potentially fold.”
Only in Canada would synchronized swimmers train outdoors in the middle of winter, said coach Sidney Shindle.
Steam billows off the warm water in thick clouds, shrouding swimmers in mist and obscuring coaches on the deck, making the practice that much more difficult.
Still, as the athletes perform their moves and combinations with names like eggbeater boost, rocket splits, ballet legs and flamingo, they practise with smiles on their faces (they’re judged on presentation and effortlessness).
“Because we love the sport, so you can see that, despite the challenges, we’re still here,” said Shingle. “Still kickin’.”
‘Dancing in the water’
The club is now home to swimmers of all ages and one of the few synchro programs in the province adapted for athletes with disabilities.
Kate Adams, 15, is an athlete with Caprice and has Down syndrome.
She described synchronized swimming as “dancing in the water” and happily demonstrated underwater flips.
Sarah Shishido, 15, also has Down syndrome and said she loves the exercises. The first time she saw a friend doing synchronized swimming about four years ago, she asked her mom to join.
Now, her mom, Lynn Shishido, said she’s concerned Sarah might want to drop out.
“When’s going to be the day where they look at it and say, ‘I’m not swimming’?”
To lose the program, Shishido said, would be “heartbreaking.”
Despite the cold, despite the drizzle, mom Beth Blanchette said the girls love the program.
“They’re making the best of (it) — freezing. … We’re not going to stop, because she (Blanchette’s daughter Rae) loves it. So, we’re going to make the best of it.”
Shishido said swimming outdoors isn’t an appealing prospect to potential new members.
“If you’re an athlete starting this right now, would you pay for your child to be here? I would not. Our daughter’s committed; she loves it … But really, it hit me, do I really want her out in the cold every day? Do I want to pay money for her to be doing this? But she loves it,” Shishido said, adding it’s not easy to find adapted athletic programs for teens.
“An activity of this level is hard to find, so this has been a really great opportunity.”
How did this happen?
The City of Burnaby is preparing to build a permanent cover over Central Park Outdoor Pool, which has some parents cautiously hopeful, though unconvinced the project will be finished by next winter as scheduled.
“What they’re planning to do is what they should have done in the first place,” McPherson said. “They had all the time to do that (going back) to 2019,” when C.G. Brown Pool was first slated for redevelopment.
“They didn’t do anything until October of last year. They finally decided to throw this scaffolding up.”
The city’s new general manager of parks and recreation, Mary Morrison-Clark, said she understands the parks department must do better, including improving communication with neighbouring cities.
She described the situation leading up to Caprice swimming outside (along with other aquatic clubs) as “a perfect storm.”
Not only did C.G. Brown Pool close, but New West’s Canada Games Pool shut down unexpectedly due to flooding. Then SFU’s pool began closing for renovations. And Vancouver, according to Morrison-Clark, hasn’t added any pool infrastructure since the 2010 Olympics.
“You have all of this regional aquatic demand, and swimmers go everywhere,” Morrison-Clark said. “So, it’s not just a Burnaby planning issue; it’s regional.”
She added C.G. Brown’s replacement pool at Burnaby Lake, which is supposed to be finished in 2026, is set to double the city’s aquatic facilities. Morrison-Clark acknowledged the challenge is “the short-term juggling that’s occurring now to get us to that long-term, amazing outcome.”
As for the holes in the Kensington deck cover, she said her staff was on the case. “That’s unacceptable.”
Caprice cancelled its outdoor practices the last week of February as the temperature fell into the negatives.
“Everything about it is hard,” McPherson said. “It’s hard for the coaches, it’s hard for the athletes, it’s hard for the parents.
“It just makes everything a struggle, not fun and positive like it should be.”
The rain picks up as the girls scramble out of the pool and book it to the showers.
McPherson said she values the synchro program for the way it combines swimming with artistic expression and teamwork.
“It’s a very unique sport. It’s a unique way to combine your love of being in the water and swimming with that artistic expression.”
She pointed out the sport fosters team building and healthy competition, noting teams must work as “a finely tuned machine.”
“When the swimmers are really good at it, you can’t even understand how hard it is. Even just trying to hold your breath for as long as they hold their breath — if you do it, you’re standing still. Try running on a treadmill and hold your breath for the amount of time they do.”
The swimmers will have to hold their breath out in the cold for a little while longer.