“When I first took over as head coach, we were quite a small club, we had about 25 swimmers – now we have about 120 and we’re competitive at every age group nationally.” – says Rugby Artistic Swimming head coach Hannah Secher, proudly.
Artistic swimming, previously known as synchronised swimming, has been an Olympic sport since the 1984 Games in Los Angeles and, whilst Great Britain have never medalled in the event, it’s popularity continues to increase.
However, clubs in the United Kingdom face many challenges on a daily basis, including access to pools, pool time and financial restraints.
Despite this, Rugby Swimming Club’s Artistic Swimmers have defied the odds to compete with some of the country’s most prestigious athletes and clubs on the national stage.
Whilst the club’s swimmers work incredibly hard in the pool to attain such astonishing results, head coach Secher is the driving force at the heart of everything the club achieves.
Secher said: “I started here as a swimmer when I was eight-years-old – I’m 37 now – and I became head coach when I was 19.
“As a child I’d never seen synchronised swimming before. I used to do swimming lessons in Southam when some of the members of Rugby Synchro came to do a demonstration it sparked my interest, as I loved dancing.
“These days artistic swimming is really athletic whereas it used to me more ‘water ballet’. it’s changed quite dramatically in the last 20 years and having it in the Olympics helps because it gets an increase in profile every four years, and we can use that to our advantage.
“Many people in the sport did not like the name change from ‘synchronised swimming’ to ‘artistic swimming’. There was a bit of an uproar about it and a lot of countries resisted the change for a long time, but gradually it is filtering down.”
Rugby has enjoyed a fine calendar year having ended 2021 by winning the Swim England Combo Cup which marked the end of virtual events as face-to-face competition returned in 2022.
After a two-year absence due to the Covid-19 pandemic when the club finally made the return to face-to-face competition in January earlier this year, they claimed five medals at the West Midlands Regional Competition.And when the club finally made the return to face-to-face competition in January earlier this year, they claimed five medals at the West Midlands Regional Competition.
Secher is delighted at how the club has grown during her tenure and feels Rugby has earned the respect of rival clubs through their performances at major tournaments.
She said: “Seeing the club grow in size and it’s general placing in the country is a huge achievement. When I swam, I would be the only one in the club that went to nationals.
“Now, we are well respected around the country and we’re competitive in every age group nationally It’s important to say that we’ve built that as a club, with support from parents and extra volunteer coaches.
“It’s not difficult to have an individual swimmer do well, it’s about doing well in teams across the age groups and building a sustainable club structure.
“There are very few clubs in the country, there’s us in Rugby and a club in Birmingham, there is not really anything South until you get to Oxford or Reading, so my catchment area is big.”
Parent Samantha Kerr added: “We do so well at regional and national level, a real achievement given that Rugby is a small town, and we don’t have the funding/sponsorship of some of the big city teams.”
And Rugby doubled their medal tally at their next competition in March to win 10 medals at the Regional Age Groups Competition – seven of which were gold.
Almost all of Rugby’s current swimmers are girls and Secher stressed the importance for teenage girls to have their own safe space in a sporting environment.
She also feels her athletes learn valuable skills as they progress through the age groups and highlighted that most of her swimmers do not fall away from the sport in their teenage years, as is the case in many other sports.
Secher said: “It’s a sport for those, particularly for girls although it is open to boys now, that is a place for them to belong, it is such a team sport and they develop friends for life along with lifelong skills.
“It really brings out their confidence, especially for those kids who perhaps struggle in mainstream sports in school and struggle with their identity a little bit, they find a place here.
“It incorporates lots of different skills as well, it’s varied, it’s interesting and it’s fun and exciting, it helps that not everybody does it, to be someone who does artistic swimming is quite unique.
“It’s a sport for everybody, the way the sport is designed, no matter what level you are at you can find a place and find a team to be a part of.
“For girls, it is a sport that really helps their confidence, and particularly through teenage years that’s so important.
“In this day and age where drop offs are really high through teenage years for a lot of sports, we keep our girls usually right until they go to university or elsewhere.
“Many of our swimmers return to the club as coaches or to swim for our Masters (adult) teams.”
Whilst Rugby did not achieve any medals at the National Championships in May, the club held their own competing against the best artistic swimmers in the country – including Team GB athletes.
And Secher opened up about the issues that plague not only Rugby but the sport in general in the UK.
Secher pondered: “I would love the club to grow, our catchment is so big, we could double in size relatively easily if it wasn’t for other limitations.
“Our biggest current limitation is pool time – I can only have so many swimmers in a pool at one time – without those swimmers you don’t have interest from new coaches.
“I really try to keep the costs as low as possible to make it as accessible as possible – I don’t want the cost to be a barrier for kids to come and be a part of this, we’re non-profit.
“It’s about continuing to provide competition experience and for children and young people to have a safe environment to continue to do sport.
“Facilities in this country are a massive problem for aquatics. I’ve just been in Alicante, Spain for a competition and they’ve got four 50-metre outdoor pools, there’s just so much more available.
“In a town the size of Rugby, we’ve got one municipal pool and we’re fighting with the speed club, triathlon club, general public and swimming lessons!
“We do however make significant use of pools such as Rugby School and Bliton Grange as well. They make pools available in the daytime, weekends and school holidays which is really appreciated.”
Kerr added: “A lot of pools want to maximize their revenue, so they’ll only make the pool available to synchro either early in the morning or late at night when they can’t sell it commercially.
“Fundraising is a big part of the club, to fund costumes for routines, travel and such like. We’ve never had sponsorship, we would love to have the support of businesses who have some relevance to water, if anyone would be willing to provide sponsorship.
“I have such a fantastic group of coaches who support me and run with my vision, I take on a lot of responsibility as head coach to try and enable swimmers of all ages and abilities to succeed at whatever skill level they are.
“We have a really good setup and plan for the year, we know what our competitions are going to be and success breeds success – it sets that precedent of really wanting to achieve and win those medals.
“Winning is not everything but wanting to win is not a bad thing.”
Secher has been an international judge on the artistic swimming circuit for a decade and picks up inspiration for routines from her travels around the globe.
Secher added:”I’ve been an international judge for 10 years now, it gives me the opportunity to be inspired, see new things and come back with new ideas.
“When they do their individual, solo or duet routines I allow the swimmers some artistic license, but the team routines really fall down to me.
“I pick the teams based on how fast the tempo is or how easy the music is to count depending on the ability of the swimmers.
“We want to pick something that they can connect with and enjoy, you often need to choreograph a routine around a theme.”
Just as dedicated as the swimmers are the parents, including Angela Marsay and Clair Henry who act as tam managers at all of the club’s events.
And one of the club’s highlights of the season came at the Warwickshire Invitational Championships where Rugby won a staggering 17 gold medals along with 12 silver medals and 10 bronze medals.
Marsay simply ran out of superlatives when describing the girls and praised their commitment to the sport as such an early age.
Marsay said: “They’ve had to do so much growing up, these girls have already gone through huge amounts of success and failure, so when it comes to a driving test or GCSE’s or something of that nature, they’re prepared for it.
“The life experiences that they’ve had, and their resilience and perseverance is a huge skill for girls at that age.
“They’re balancing everything: they’re doing GCSE’s and A-levels, they’re learning to drive, they’re applying to go off to university or college, they’re juggling jobs.
“They make their choice as to what they’re going to give up in committing to the sport, as do the parents – sometimes we’re at the pool until 10 o’clock at night and then at seven o’clock the next morning – everybody in the family is committed to it.”
Henry added: “Sometimes you think ‘they’re not going to do it are they?’ and then you find them up, dressed and ready.
“The Combo Cup weekend would have been their first weekend after GCSE’s and A-levels and all of them chose to go down to London and be part of a team to swim in the competition.
“It’s a very graceful and lovely sport to watch, it can be mocked quite a lot, but the endurance, core strength and flexibility needed to keep your body weight out of the water is something else.”
Marsay also explained the lengths to which head coach Secher went to support her swimmers during the challenging Covid-19 pandemic.
Marsay added: “Covid was the worst time for the club but Hannah’s support for the girls was fantastic. She had a virtual meeting every week and the team coaches had a meeting as well. The girls still had some online fitness training, competitions, and quizzes to keep in touch with each other.
“It’s interesting that there used to be 30 to 40 girls in the artistic section at Rugby SC, most of which were speed swimmers. Now we have over 100 girls of which two thirds are made up of synchro swimmers.”
And parent Kerr only had positive words to say about Secher, praising the atmosphere and culture she has cultivated during her time as head coach.
Kerr said: “Hannah is such a good head coach, from a parent’s point of view, I feel like she knows my child and knows each one as an individual.
“She’s interested in what is going on for them and how that impacts on their life and swimming. She makes allowances and changes for that as much as she can to support them.
“Rugby has got a bit of a reputation at competitions for being really good fun and quite loud, not just the kids but the parents as well!
“Everyone is quite vocal with their support and that’s really good because I think they feel that when they’re in the pool. This is a misunderstood sport that needs more swimmers and more support!’’.
Anyone interested in taking part or finding out more about artistic swimming, email head coach Hannah Secher at: [email protected]