Making a splash: Interview with Kate Shortman and Isabelle Thorpe
6 min read
Training for this year’s Olympic qualifiers, campaigning for the environment and encouraging younger athletes: be sure to support Bristol’s inspirational artistic swimming duo in 2020
Bristol synchronised swimmers Kate Shortman and Isabelle Thorpe made headlines last year for performing their World Championship routine in a pool full of plastic, among bottles, carrier bags and containers, to highlight the problem of marine pollution. Now, as they aim nice and high once again, this time for the summer’s Olympic Games in Tokyo, they bring us up to speed on their life aquatic.
TBM: How are you feeling about Tokyo? Bring us up to speed… We are really excited for this year and everything it has to hold, from the qualifiers or even the French Open before that, hopefully right up to the climax of the year – the Olympic Games! We’ve been training as a duet since we were 10 years old and now with the big shared goal of the Games, and that’s very much been our focus for the past eight years. We are apprehensive for the qualifiers in Tokyo at the end of April because the risks are high and we’ve been building up to it for a long time, but we are also super excited for all our training to hopefully amount to our goal. We are the youngest duet on the circuit and other than the two sets of twins, the only one that has swum together from such a young age. We want to put GB back on the map for our sport.
You have made real progress – what keeps you motivated? We motivate each other really well because we’ve known each other for so long – we can second guess each other and we both know when the other needs to be picked up. Our joint dream of going to the Olympics as a duet is what pushes us forward and keeps us improving, along with the progress that we’ve made. When we do well at a competition, get good feedback from the judges, or even when our splits improve by an inch, these are the things that keep us hungry for more and focused on progressing. We have done several little promotions to encourage youngsters to get into the sport too; it is a great sport for children and particularly girls, helping with self-image and esteem issues. It is inspiring for us to see them happy and enjoying the sport.
What have been the highs and lows of the past year? Two of the main highs (which were also our lows of 2019) would be the Junior Europeans in Prague and the Senior World Championships in South Korea. We swam at our very best in both our routines, improving our scores in each event and competition. We got really good scores which we were very happy about and were pipped into fourth place behind Spain who have been in the medals in the past Olympic cycles. Some of the judges said we should have been placed second or third and missed out by literally a fraction, which was frustrating! The World Championship in Gwangju at the end of the year was such a good competition and it was so exciting to be in the sports village with all the other Great Britain athletes; there was a nice community vibe. For us there were some lows at that competition which we needed to overcome. At the World Championships we had swum so well and were so close to making the top 12, which is a final. It wasn’t a setback because we did so well coming 14th in the world and being the youngest pair, but it was a disappointment as we were so close. We’ve used it to our advantage though, as it made us even more determined this year.
Artistic swimming is regarded as one of the most demanding sports physically; how do you prepare for events? We would absolutely agree; it is a lot harder than it looks! You can’t touch the floor and have to hold your breath while pushing your muscles to perform without oxygen at a speed and with power. A lot of our routines require us to hold our breath for nearly a minute while still trying to maintain grace and elegance. A lot of hard and varied training goes on behind the scenes. We have sessions of yoga, gymnastics, ballet and speed swimming to complement the synchro training. This is all on top of our usual strength and conditioning programme. That shows how well-rounded an athlete you need to be; you need the flexibility of a gymnast but also the strength of a bodybuilder and the cardio fitness of a swimmer. We also have to remember all our movements, the counts to the music, the specific corrections we get from our coach, and there can be 500 counts or moves within a routine. At times you can be taking on corrections for every one of those, which can be mentally challenging.
Why did you choose the path of artistic swimming? Kate: I started in the sport when I was six years old, with speed swimming at age five and some Saturday gymnastics sessions. I think mainly it was through my mum and sister doing it and a lot of my family members being in the pool so it was a very natural environment to be in. Isabelle: I started synchro when I was seven, just a couple of hours a week. I was doing 10 hours of gymnastics and a bit of ballet. I really enjoyed swimming and the feel of the water and in 2012 I decided I really wanted to focus on synchro; in the past my mum was a synchro swimmer and swam with Kate’s mum back in the ’90s; my brother was also a speed swimmer and so it felt like the right path to follow.
With your growing profiles, are there plans for further campaigns such as the World Championship routine in a pool littered with rubbish? Swimming in the pool of plastic was definitely a massive eye opener for both of us. We’d never done anything like that before so it was a great opportunity for us to raise awareness of plastic pollution, which is obviously such an issue at the moment and really needs to be brought to more people’s attention. It did help to raise awareness for the sport too, helping to showcase it and get people to understand what artistic swimming is. We’d love to be involved in more campaigns in the future and are in talks with a company that will be making our Olympic costumes all from recycled materials which could be very exciting.
Training for the Olympics is incredibly intense; and you are studying. How do you keep a career/home/study balance? Training for the Olympics while still going to school to complete A-levels is difficult, but we have huge support from our school (Clifton High). For the past year that we have been combining our studies and training, the school have allowed us access to the pool, gym and sports hall and have gone out of their way to support us; coordinating the school timetable for the pool so we can train, and our lessons in the morning, enabling us to train in the afternoons. Isabelle has been at the school since she was 12 years old and they have supported her throughout her time there, allowing her to miss school for training or competitions and helping catch up with one-to-one lessons. We have also taken part in school activities, presenting to younger aspiring athletes from many sports on our journey. We obviously need to make some sacrifices with our social life, missing parties, events and special occasions but this is the path we have chosen for now and we know we need to give it everything because if we don’t, someone else around the world will and we don’t want to miss out. Academically the school help us catch up if we’ve been away for training or competitions. We have great support from our parents and friends, which is really good whenever we need additional motivation. Focusing on the Olympics this year does help to prioritise things!
Who else in Bristol has really supported your development? Our swimming club, City of Bristol, have been a huge support to us, always believing in our dream and ambition and pushing us to where we are now. They have allowed us to train with our GB coach during sessions, giving us time to practise our routines. The leisure providers in the city have also been helpful, especially Parkwood which manages Hengrove, and Everyone Active, which manages sites across the city.