Nathan White Director of Communications, Swimming Canada (CAN)

New face reaching towards new heights

When Jacqueline Simoneau takes a “break,” it doesn’t quite mean the same thing for her as it does for most people.

After four years of hard work to achieve her goal of competing at the Olympic Games in synchronised swimming, Simoneau and her team-mates – including duet partner Karine Thomas – took a couple months off last fall.

During the Olympic quad we were so focused on what we were doing every single day we didn’t have a moment to step out. So we took that moment, stepped out and disconnected,” says Simoneau, who turned 20 after the Rio 2016 Games.

So what did she do to unwind? Relax on a beach somewhere warm? Indulge in fast food? Maybe a Netflix marathon?

School actually,” says Simoneau, who is studying Health Sciences at Vanier College and would like to become a doctor some day.

“I basically got off the plane and went straight to school. I also joined the robotics club at school, which was something I found interesting, and I also started an internship shadowing some doctors.”

“I kind of matured as an athlete”

It seems there really is no off switch for Simoneau, whether she’s in the water or in the classroom.

I don’t know what I’d do with myself with a full week off,” says the ultra-disciplined and highly competitive Montreal native.

“I must say her discipline, her commitment to her career, either in synchronised swimming or in her personal life, her school, it has amazingly impressed me,” says national team coach Meng Chen, who has been in Canada since 2008.

“Her commitment or her effort into everything, without a push by other external people, she will drive herself to the goal. Her mind’s drive to succeed is unbelievably strong.”

That might explain why Simoneau is one of the most promising synchronised swimmers Canada has had in recent memory.

During her “break” she not only turned the ripe old age of 20 but felt she was maturing in more ways than one.

“Before in synchro I was kind of looked at as the child, one of the youngest people on the team. I think over the break I kind of matured as an athlete, had time to sit back, mature and grow outside of synchro,” she says.

“It’s helped a huge amount back in the water after. The way I move in the water, the way I execute some elements feels more mature.”

Until recently Simoneau was known more for her performances at the junior level. At the Helsinki 2014 World Junior Championships she won the figures event ahead of Russian Anisiya Neborako and settled for silver in the solo after Neborako narrowly edged her out.

“It looked cool and looked fun”

Her dream started much earlier than that, however. Actually, it started on a diving board when she was nine years old.

“When I was little, I was diving for a club team (in Montreal suburb) Pointe-Claire. What was really weird was, synchro never really trains at this pool, but one day we had practice on a Saturday and for some reason synchro was there. I saw it, thought it looked cool and looked fun, and told my mom I wanted to try it. My mom enrolled me, and I’ve loved it ever since.”

She did both aquatic sports for three years, and actually also dabbled in swimming and water polo, before settling on synchro full time. If there were ever some sort of multi-sport aquatics competition, Simoneau would probably win – she’s known for her competitiveness in speed swimming drills and does diving training once a week to work on her acrobatic moves as one of the flyers.

Interestingly, it wasn’t synchro athletes like Carolyn Waldo, Sylvie Frechette or Mari-Pier Boudreau Gagnon who initially inspired her to pursue the Olympic dream, but another Canadian aquatics great.

“When I was diving it was (2003 world champion and four-times Olympic medallist) Emilie Heymans. She trained at Pointe-Claire and I watched how dedicated and passionate she was. I watched her roots as she went towards the 2008 Beijing Games. I got to see the places she travelled, she’d show us pictures of the pools, and ever since then I wanted to go to the Olympic Games.”

With that dream now behind her, she has returned to the water with a new goal. Now the hard work resumes, this time as a leader who has her mind set on senior international podium performances. After their time away from training, national team athletes, coaches and support staff all got together to debrief and plan what Canada needs to do to get to the next level.

“We’re known to be innovators in our highlights and we want to continue to be making up new acrobatic movements and continue to be a world leader. We’re also known for our artistic impression in synchronised swimming, so we really want to continue that,” she says.

“In technical we’ve improved the last few years with our new Japanese coach (Miho Yoshida). That’s the improvement we’re missing to step up on to the podium.”

Simoneau wants to play a major role in bringing Canada back to international prominence in the sport, and Chen believes she has what it takes.

“Jacqueline has the full package. That means her technique, her physique, her mental preparation, her artistry capacity. She has everything in her,” Chen said.

“I’m really excited about her, and actually very excited about synchronised swimming internationally. Seeing someone like her at a young age at this level right now, I’m really looking forward to seeing how she’s going to perform in World Championships.”

“That white board is my best friend”

 

Those FINA World Championships are set for July 14-30 in Budapest.

Simoneau and Chen have a solo medal in their sights and also hope to see Canada move up in the duet and team events. Canada finished as high as sixth in the team technical and duet technical at the 2015 Worlds in Kazan, Russia, and Simoneau was sixth in both solo events. Simoneau and Thomas have been competing together since 2014.

In 2015, they won duet gold at the Pan American Games in Toronto, where Canada also won gold in the team event. In addition to the Olympics, Simoneau lists Pan Ams as a career highlight because they were able to perform before family and friends. It’s all about goals big and small for Simoneau, and now that she’s been to the Olympic Games, the world podium is a logical next step.

“I’ve never really not been motivated in my sport. I wake up every single day with a goal in my head. Before Rio it was the Olympics. Every single day I would wake up and think about Olympics, and every single day I’d have a sub-goal to get me to my place. I’ve never been down or not motivated because every day I’m on a mission. I want to accomplish something.”

It’s all mapped out on a white board at home. With Synchro Canada’s Centre of Excellence based in her hometown of Montreal, she’s able to live at home with her parents, Robert Simoneau and Linda South-Simoneau, as well as younger brother Christian, 18.