Motion and emotion:
Synchronised swimming gold medallist Katrina Ann Hadi tells Ooi Tee Ching that when there’s passion you can never lose.
The instructions were firm:”I want to see you point your toes. Five, six, seven, eight… higher, higher…” blared through a microphone, the commanding voice belying the demure looks of Katrina Ann Hadi, 22. “One, two, three, four… chin up, smile… five, six, seven, eight… squeeze your butt, lock your knees… one, two, three, four,” she counts the beat as she taps a metal rod at the side of the diving pool at the Bukit Jalil Aquatics Centre.
The swimmers surface and smile with their mouths wide open while taking in deep breaths. At first glance, Katrina’s synchronised swimmers look like cheerful little cupcakes bobbing up and down in the water. In reality, however, they are a bunch of tough cookies. Their smiles hide the constant pain of sore muscles and bruises from accidental collisions.
It’s not all prancing around and splashing in the water. It can be very tiring. They’ve got to love the water, the music and be very forgiving of each other,” says Katrina, adding every member has her role. The stronger ones provide support for the routines and the smallest is tossed into the air.
She says the only way a team can succeed is if every member is willing to learn from one another. Each detail has to be perfectly timed – the lifts, the boosts, the splits. At every practice session, her students go through the mandatory land drills before they enter the water.
“In order to do splits in the water, they have to do the splits over 180 degrees on the ground. They also move their hands they way they’re supposed to do with their legs when they’re upside down in the water,” she says. “It helps translate the muscle memory when they get into the water.”
Synchronised swimmers often look like they’re “dancing above the water. This is because they have learnt to “hold onto the water”. They can slide and position their hands and feet where they’re most effective. This is seen in the eggbeater kick, which is the most crucial underwater move. This is when a swimmer swirls her legs in circles underwater, propelling her body above water, leaving her arms free to gesture gracefully in the air. The other basic skill to master is sculling, an underwater hand movement that keeps the swimmer afloat. This motion can be compared to your palms rigorously polishing a table. As her students spin, flip and kick their legs to the beat if the music piped through underwater speakers, she reminds them to keep an eye on each other.
Katrina motivates the swimmers in a series of small steps. That way, they can accomplish goals even when they encounter setbacks. When they’re about to do a difficult move, she encourages them to focus on the beat of the music. She says synchronised swimming is an early sport specialisation as it requires flexibility, strength and cardiovascular training. “It’s easier to be taught from a young age. But then again, those who have strong background in dance, gymnastics or swimming tend to also do well.”
Typically, coaches work to maximise their students’ physical attributes, turning them into strong and resilient athletes. But what really counts is personal development which reaffirms values like courage and self-belief to do the needful. Just before competitions, some students succumb to nervous tears despite the intense preparation and rehearsals. Yap Bee Ling, the mother of one such student recalls how Katrina calmly reassured her daughter, telling her to focus on what she could do instead of worrying about what could go wrong.
“My daughter is in capable hands. Under Katrina’s guidance, my daughter experiences the true value of perseverance and courage,” says Yap.
For the past year, Katrina is on the payroll of D Swim Academy (DSA) as director of their synchronised swimming programme. “We don’t have athletes who are competing in international championships, taking on coaching duties and pursuing tertiary education – all that takes a lot of discipline and good time management,” says DSA co-founder Cyrena Yong.
When the national team competes, the media spotlight on Katrina’s achievements also lends credence to DSA’s branding and profile. “We’re happy to have her as part of our coaching team,” says Yong.
Katrina said her decision to coach amateurs was a gradual progression from helping out in her own team. “I started with helping the Selangor team on weekends when we were preparing for the Malaysian Games in 2011 and 2013. Back then, after practice with the national coach, some of us would stay back to help the younger ones with their routines,” she explains. “I like helping out the younger girls, especially with choreography. They’d come to me for advice. After a while, I realised coaching gave me a deeper understanding of the sport. I also found myself becoming a better athlete,” she says.
Opening up the sport
Apart from coaching little girls, Katrina also conducts lessons for working women. “For adults, it’s more of a life-long learning experience and healthy sessions of social get-together. Synchro is really a fun way to keep fit and if it helpswomen develop body confidence, all the better,” she says. She believes it will do a lot for aquatics if swimming is mandatory in the national school system. It is ironic that despite every state having a beachfront, a large percentage of the population doesn’t know how to swim.
“It’d be good to see more regular swimming programmes in schools,” she says, adding if the country has a larger talent pool to reap from, water sports can expand and become more mainstream like football, badminton, golf or even marathons. Currently, our synchronised swimming scene is limited to girls and women. “Until today, the Olympics prohibit male participation. But there’s a growing movement in Europe and America where men are competing professionally,” says Katrina.
“Like ballet, dance, cheerleading and figure skating, men are instrumental in providing amazing testosterone-fuelled lifts and throws. It’d be strange to see two women do the tango!”
“I think having mixed and boys’ team would give the sport a wow factor. I have this amazing choreography for a mixed team performance in mind,” she says. You never know what may happen in the future.”