They can’t shout it from the rooftops, but Montrealers Jacqueline Simoneau and Audrey Lamothe practically assured their participation in the Paris Olympic Games by taking fifth place in the free duet at the World Championships in Doha on Thursday.
Two days after her brilliant title in the free solo, a specialty that had disappeared from the Olympic program, Simoneau dove back for a tenth event in Qatar, obtaining with her young teammate Audrey Lamothe what she really had her eyes on for her return to competition after a two-year retirement: a third passport for the Olympics.
“I don’t want to celebrate too early,” Simoneau warned The Press when he left the doping control, two hours after the final.
“We will eat, celebrate our great performances, but as for this ticket to the Olympic Games, we will wait for confirmation tomorrow. But it’s very, very likely. We’ve done all the calculations and we have a 99.999% chance of doing it! »
When the results were revealed, Lamothe was the one who reacted the most strongly, screaming her joy as she fell into the arms of her partner and childhood idol. She was struggling to hold back her tears through her wide smile.
“It’s a mixture of several emotions, of circumstances,” said the 18-year-old athlete, taking the phone from her teammate. “Seeing the “1” on the board, seeing that we had still obtained our (full) difficulty rating, seeing the dream of the Olympics getting a little closer… It seems like it’s a dream come true! »
Audrey Lamothe should receive confirmation of her participation in her first Olympics on Friday.
“In my little heart, I prefer to wait until it is official to express my joy even more. Just with our performance today, that’s a victory in itself. »
“Our energy belongs to you”
The Canadian pair’s Olympic qualification depends on the results of the final of the team free program, the last competition on the program, Friday morning (Montreal time). Barring a gastro epidemic in several favorite nations – and then again – Simoneau and Lamothe will be among the 10 duos directly selected.
In an ideal world, their team event colleagues, who reached the final by virtue of their ninth position in preliminaries on Thursday, would join them to form a maximum contingent of eight representatives in Paris.
To achieve this, Canada will, in all likelihood, have to finish among the first two of a trio of countries completed by Italy and Ukraine, which it is currently ahead of in the combined ranking of the acrobatic and technical events.
However, based on the score from Thursday’s free program preliminaries, the Canadian swimmers would have moved to third. Fortunately, the counters restart from zero for the final, where they will want to avoid a three-point deduction from their score for difficulty, as happened to them in the preliminaries.
In short, nothing is won for the collective competition, which also explains the restraint of Simoneau and Lamothe on Thursday. “As soon as we finished swimming, we went to see our teammates and told them: ‘All the energy we have left, it belongs to you,’” said Simoneau, who contributed to the sixth place in the technical test before his solo world title on Tuesday, just like Lamothe.
At her very first competition since the Tokyo Olympics, two and a half years earlier, Jacqueline Simoneau was delighted to see the Canadian pair’s status maintained despite minimal preparation. In Japan, she also placed fifth with Claudia Holzner.
“We’re starting from the same place, which is already a big rebound compared to the last World Championships,” noted the 27-year-old swimmer. In Fukuoka last summer, Scarlett Finn and Kenzie Pridell, who are now part of the team, settled for 18e place for the technical duo.
However, Simoneau and Lamothe only performed their free routine from start to finish for the first time on December 27. Judging that the old choreography did not stick to them, the two Quebecers themselves dared to create a new one a few days in advance, with the intention of being contenders for a medal in the French capital.
“It’s been a crazy ride in the last month and a half trying to get them into this position,” said coach Kasia Kulesza. “The other swimmers have sometimes been training together for five or ten years and have been swimming the same choreographies for a year and a half. It’s incredible what they have accomplished and the evolution they have experienced. »
Described as a “little machine” by its coach, Audrey Lamothe proved to live up to the status of her world champion companion. “The pressure of swimming with Jacqueline Simoneau is intense,” said Kulesza, an Olympic silver medalist in a team with, among others, Sylvie Fréchette in 1996. “Audrey could feel it, but they are such a good team together . »
In Lamothe, Simoneau recognized herself at the time when she played with Karine Thomas, her partner from the 2016 Olympics who was a model for her.
“I understand the emotions and feelings she must have felt. But she has nothing to catch up on, she works so hard on her part. I felt a bit like she had butterflies in her stomach today, but she handles that well in competition, where she is always better than in training. I knew she would come out with something great. »
Grateful for the trust shown by her accomplice, Audrey Lamothe assures that she did not experience any additional stress to rise to the occasion. “I saw it more as an honor than the pressure of swimming with the world champion,” noted the fourth in the free solo at last year’s Worlds.
The title of world champion: a “bonus”
Double medalist in Doha, Simoneau is now crossing her fingers for her compatriots: “We really want the team to qualify too. We put all our attention on that. (…) The chances are absolutely there. They just have to swim a flawless program tomorrow, that’s all they can give. The rest is in the hands of the judges. »
Simoneau is also discovering the new rating system introduced last year by World Aquatics. Rewarding the difficulty of the figures and dusting off rankings apparently predetermined by political backroom games, this remodeled scale seemed tailor-made for the Montrealer.
Without being the only factor explaining her return, she admits that this paradigm shift weighed in the balance. The two-time Olympic swimmer also wanted to reconnect with colleagues and friends she missed on the international scene.
The encouragement from his classmates in the undergraduate doctorate in podiatric medicine, at the University of Quebec at Trois-Rivières, hit the target.
“My program director, Olivier Hue, is a former top athlete in France,” she added. He was the one who told me: “This is your chance, anything is possible.” He gave me the green light. It’s thanks to him that I am here. »
After participating in 10 events in Qatar, Simoneau can now catch his breath and savor his new status as a world monarch, a first in the country since Fréchette’s gold in 1991, in a discipline then called synchronized swimming.
“Honestly, it never hit me!” The goal of my return was really to qualify Canada for the Olympics. The title of world champion, I will take it as a bonus, that’s for sure. With my duo competitions, I didn’t want to let myself live in the moment too much. I think I’ll really be able to appreciate it tomorrow after the team final. »
Two is good, but eight would be even better.
A balm after “a very difficult year”
Six months before the Paris Olympics, this good news comes at the right time for Artistic Swimming Canada, shaken by a disciplinary investigation into allegations of abuse and harassment by senior national team head coach Gabor Szauder in 2021. Cleared, the Hungarian of origin was dismissed from his functions in the summer of 2023 for reasons which have not been revealed.
“It’s been a very difficult year for artistic swimming in Canada in general,” agreed Kasia Kulesza, head coach of the Next Gen group who took over from Szauder on an interim basis with sport director Kerri Morgan, who accompanies him to Doha.
“We had a lot of adventures and the world championships (of 2023) went less well in certain events. For us, this rise in just a few months is truly historic. After the Pan American Games, where we performed well without quite qualifying, to arrive here and be on the doorstep of an Olympic place is very exciting. It’s incredible the teamwork we did. »
On January 15, Anna Voloshyna, a Ukrainian who was an assistant in the United States, was named the new head coach of the senior team. Its role in relation to the Paris Olympics has not yet been specified.