"Pretty Motivating" — Young Canadian male artistic swimmer can now aim for Olympics

TORONTO — Like many amateur athletes with big sporting dreams, Canadian artistic swimmer Chris Niehaus hopes to one day represent his country on the Olympic stage.

Since taking up the sport six years ago, the 13-year-old from Toronto could only aim as high as the world championships.

However, that changed last week when the International Olympic Committee gave its approval for national committees to include up to two male athletes on their rosters for artistic swimming team events at the Summer Olympics.

"I was excited because I feel that I have a chance to go to the Olympics if I keep up my hard work," Niehaus told The Canadian Press.

Artistic swimming — also known as synchronized swimming — has been an exclusively female competition at the Games since the sport was added to the Olympic program in 1984.

Canada Artistic Swimming chief executive officer Jackie Buckingham said Canada is one of several countries that have lobbied for male inclusion in recent years.

"This has taken a while," she said in a recent interview. "It's really, really time."

The mixed duet discipline — which features one male and one female swimming side by side — was added to the international program in 2015 but has yet to crack the Olympic lineup.

Five events will be on the schedule at the Olympic Aquatics Centre for the 2024 Games in Paris. They include free duets, technical duets, finale duets, free teams and technical teams.

Niehaus, a Grade 8 student, is based at the Olympium Artistic Swimming Club in west Toronto. He has competed in different age categories at the local, regional and national level in what has traditionally been a female-dominated sport.

"There's definitely lots of male synchro athletes out there, they just haven't had a chance to compete on the world stage a whole (lot)," said Liz Niehaus, Chris's mother. "So I think that people just don't know that they're out there.

"I think the more they get to compete, the more boys will join the sport and I think that's a good thing."

Niehaus was nominated to represent Canada at the 2022 FINA world youth championship, but a broken wrist prevented him from competing.

Since many artistic swimmers peak in their late teens or early-to-mid 20s, his best bet for a potential Olympic nomination may come in 2028 for the Los Angeles Games or the 2032 Games in Brisbane, Australia.

His mother said the IOC approval was "pretty exciting" but also overdue.

"I think it's about time," she said. "We're going for gender equity everywhere else in the world and I thought it was pretty poor that males weren't allowed to compete in synchronized swimming.

"If they work just as hard as female athletes, everybody should be allowed to compete if they want to."

Buckingham said her organization has set a course for increasing diversity and inclusion in the sport.

"This was a really positive development because it validates the work that we've been doing," she said. "Certainly the promotion of males participating in the sport, it was strongly supported and recommended from leaders in Canada back in 2015 and has worked through the FINA (now World Aquatics) system first.

"There's a lot of change happening at the international level related to aquatic sport and artistic swimming in general. So the timing is really good and really appropriate."

Niehaus said he has been focusing on four different events this season, including two team disciplines, one solo and mixed duet. He plans to compete again in February in the age 13-15 category.

Niehaus described the Olympic approval news as "pretty motivating."

"Ever since I was little, we always had the Olympics on (TV) whenever it was live, or even recordings of it," he said. "It just seemed so fun because I got to see everyone — even some people that I recognized, like big names — I saw them doing it and I always like, 'I want to go there and be one of them.'"

The first Olympic qualifier is the Oct. 20-Nov. 5 Pan Am Games in Santiago, Chile. Qualification spots for Paris will also be available at the world championships in February 2024 at Doha, Qatar.

Canada will host the opening competition of the four-stop World Cup circuit next year. The March 16-18 event will be held at the Markham Pan Am Centre near Toronto.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 30, 2022.

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Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press