By Charlie Pinkerton
Caught in front of a viral tidal wave that rapidly closed down the sporting world, Ottawa’s top young artistic swimming pair made the most of what may end up being their final competition as a tandem.
Sonia Dunn and Nanxi Jiang won gold medals in the duet free competition in the 13-15 age group at the Leslie Taylor Ontario Cup. The GO Capital Synchro athletes also had podium finishes (Jiang in 1st and Dunn in 3rd) in the solo free event, while Jiang placed 2nd in the figures competition at the provincial championships, which underwent a last-minute scheduling overhaul due to fast-escalating limitations put on sports to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Dunn and Jiang’s placings qualified them for the Canadian championships, which they had set a goal of winning together. Unfortunately for those aspirations, they learned within minutes of qualifying that their national event was also cancelled.
Dunn said nothing about the event seemed awry when she and her close to 40 teammates arrived in Markham on Wednesday, March 11 – the day before the provincial championships were supposed to begin.
That same day, COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization. In rapid succession that night, highly-publicized developments including near-unprecedented stoppages of travel by the United States, the positive diagnosis of actor Tom Hanks and the suspension of the NBA season almost immediately heightened concern about the coronavirus in the western world. Dominos instantaneously fell in the sports world, as professional leagues and amateur competitions alike began taking swift action to diffuse large-scale events where chance of the coronavirus spreading would be exacerbated.
The Leslie Taylor Ontario Cup was only partially spared. The competition began as intended on March 12, but midway through the day the Ontario government announced that it would be closing all public schools until at least April. After just a single day of the event, GO Capital coaches told their team that recreational centres were being closed across Markham and that the event was not going to be able to be finished as intended.
However, closures were to take effect on March 13 at midnight, allowing event organizers to hold a fast-tracked version, with national-qualifying hopefuls including Jiang and Dunn to instead complete all their disciplines in a single day.
“The pool deck went from probably having 500 people to barely 50, so it was pretty much like a ghost town, I found,” Dunn said.
The changes posed unique challenges for each of GO Capital’s top swimmers.
Jiang mentioned that the condensed schedule was one obstacle.
“It was really tiring, but I knew I had to push through it,” she said. “I kind of had a lot of adrenaline because my body was preparing for the full day.”
Dunn compared the event’s atmosphere to that of a practice, because of its lack of spectators and cheering.
“I think that it almost drove me to push even harder because it was just me in the pool, there was no outside distractions. It was just me swimming with the music and with Nanxi,” Dunn said of their duet swim.
They both said they were pleased with their finish, but also that they were disappointed to lose their opportunity to follow through with the ultimate pursuit of their season.
“Every time (Jiang and I) swam, even at practice, we’d be like, ‘okay, do this for nationals…’ so it was really hard to accept that we would never get even the chance to compete to try to achieve our goal,” Dunn said.
An unlikely pair
Jiang, 13, and Dunn, 15, both got involved with artistic swimming around seven years ago.
Jiang played a range of other sports when she was younger, including soccer, tennis and power swimming, but none seemed like the right fit for her.
“I didn’t feel like a strong connection for any of them, but I really enjoyed doing sports,” she said.
Jiang was eventually captivated by artistic swimming, saying she enjoyed the group aspect and having older teammates to look up to.
Since taking up the sport, Jiang has excelled, and was named the city’s top artistic swimmer last year by the Ottawa Sports Awards. She’s a perennial national-level competitor, having competed at the Canadian championships for the sport each of the last two years. Last season she was a double-medallist at the national championships and also went on to win several medals at the 2019 UANA Pan Am Artistic Swimming Championships.
As for Dunn, the sport grabbed her attention when a friend brought her to a sibling’s competition, intending for Dunn to help her kill the time there. Dunn, however, was instantly hooked. She grew up with the Nepean Synchro Swim Club before switching to GO Capital last year. Dunn’s been competing for a few years but said last season was when she started taking the sport more seriously by doubling the amount of time she spent training each week.
Dunn and Jiang agreed that they make what would typically be considered an odd couple in the water. Dunn is much taller than Jiang, and their skin tones aren’t similar either – both traits that are often advantageous for athletes to share in the artistic swimming world.
“I know that they paired us together because we both have a very strong work ethic and we’re both very determined,” Dunn said. “(Our coaches) knew that us being different wouldn’t set us back at all because we would just work that much harder to make sure our duet looks that much more synchronized.”
Because of their age difference, Dunn will graduate to an older category of competitions next year, while in all likelihood Jiang will continue competing at the 13-15 age group. Though there’s a chance they could be paired up again in later years, what was perhaps their best chance at winning a duet national championship together was a casualty to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“(At the provincials) I kind of thought it might have been the last time (they’d compete together as a duet) and now looking at the situation right now, it probably was the last time. But I’m really glad that we had that last opportunity,” Jiang said.
Neither athlete has swam since the Leslie Taylor Ontario Cup. Both have continued training outside of the pool, by way of group sessions using Zoom that GO Capital has orchestrated.
“It really helps me stay motivated every day because I get to see my team and my coaches and it gives a social aspect to the isolation, so it’s really nice,” Dunn said.
“I’m trying to keep a positive mindset, (and remind myself) that I’ll get back in the water soon,” Jiang said.
Top local finishes at the Leslie Taylor Ontario Cup
GO Capital’s swim team also won gold medals in the combo finals. Other medallists for the club at the competition include Kailey Lapointe, who placed 3rd in the junior solo technical event, and Gabrielle Gillan, who came 2nd in the senior solo technical category.
Ottawa sisters Anastasia and Maya Bell came in 3rd place with Toronto’s Variety Village Artistic Swimming club in the junior duet free event.
Similar circumstances shorten Ontario Spring Diving Provincials
The Ontario Spring Diving Provincials were brought to an end after just one day of competition in Etobicoke, because of measures put in place to limit spreading COVID-19.
In the one-day event, Nepean-Ottawa Diving Club’s Kate Miller won gold medals in the 1 metre in the Women’s Group B and Women’s Open divisions. The Ottawa National Diving Club’s (ONDC) Audree Howes won a bronze medal in the Women’s Group B 1 m, while her teammate Madeline McGowan placed only behind Miller in the Women’s Open division.
Nepean-Ottawa’s Victor Hearn won a gold medal in the Men’s Group A 3 m. His teammate Ella Lindsay won a bronze medal in the Women’s Group D platform. ONDC’s Charlee-Mae Hunt also won a bronze medal in the Women’s Group C platform.