Growing up, Catherine McGee’s interest in anything aquatic, combined with their dance background, ignited their love for artistic swimming. She held her passion close throughout her school years and eventually, it landed her at McGill.
“[Being in the water] just felt so calming for me, almost therapeutic, if that makes any sense,” McGee explained in an interview with The McGill Tribune. “When you go under there, everything just kind of goes still and you’re really just able to ground yourself and be a lot calmer.”
Through artistic swimming, McGee pushes herself to her physical limits by learning and mastering new techniques.
“When I’m swimming, it’s the physical part and the athleticism that I appreciate [more],” McGee said. “As a spectator, […] you have a greater degree of appreciation for the craftsmanship that goes into making the routines and performing them as well.”
McGee joined the McGill team that was revived after a two-year, COVID-19-induced hiatus. The Martlet squad is composed overwhelmingly of first-years, with only four returning swimmers for the 2022-23 season. When preparing routines, the team’s young core was a source of creativity, but also required added attention to bring cohesion and unity to the routines.
“Everyone brought a different perspective on the sport based on their own experience,” McGee explained. “We had to take a lot of time learning how to swim with each other because we’re new at it […] Before you can even focus on polishing the routine, you need to finalize that kind of degree of comfort within a team. We have to take time to learn how to be a team.”
Community is central to artistic swimming: Coordinating choreography with eight individuals requires a great deal of confidence and cohesion. According to McGee, the kindness of Lindsay Duncan, the team’s coach and associate professor of kinesiology, has been crucial to creating a welcoming environment at the pool.
As strong as McGee’s passion for artistic swimming is, the pitfalls of the sport remain in the back of their mind.
“I don’t think the sport inherently promotes any sort of disordered behaviour and when I say that, I mean the construction of the sport itself,” McGee explained. “I do think that the way that we’ve presented artistic swimming, or some of the standards that artistic swimmers are held to, particularly regarding your body and eating habits, are just not sustainable and they’re not fair.”
Their personal experiences in the sport have made them critical of how artistic swimming is promoted, especially compared to other sports with an emphasis on aesthetics over skills.
“Artistic swimming is very much a performance sport, right, similar to that like ballet or dance,” she admitted. “I think the way that artistic swimming has been marketed, even from the get-go, has made us lose out on a lot of global awareness that we could have gained.”
Looking toward the future, McGee is excited by the increasing inclusivity of artistic swimming, both when it comes to gender and to financial and outreach programs that connect low-income communities to artistic swimming and swimming in general.
“I think that we’re definitely moving in the right direction, especially in terms of inclusivity with men in the sport,” McGee said. “It would be a great idea to continue some outreach programs with artistic swimming.”
As the McGill team is entirely self-funded, McGee is acutely aware of the costs of the sport, between the costumes and bathing suits, as well as transportation when the Eastern Championships or Nationals are held out of province.
“It’s really important for us to raise as much money as possible to minimize the cost for the students because we want to make artistic swimming at McGill as much of an economically inclusive environment as possible,” McGee said. “It’s just such a shame to think about the fact that finances or cost of the sport [are] what’s in the way of people who might be really interested in the sport from trying it.” The McGill artistic swimming team will head to the University of Toronto for the Canadian University Artistic Swim League National Championship on March 24.