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Synchronized Swimming Has a Concussion Problem

Synchronized Swimming Has a Concussion Problem
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Synchronized Swimming Has a Concussion Problem

Synchronized Swimming Has a Concussion Problem

WALNUT CREEK, CALIF. – When the artistic swimming team competition kicks off at the Tokyo Games on Friday, the swimmers’ goal will be to make their movements appear effortless. But while viewers will see smiling performers, sparkly costumes and gelatin slicked back hair, a risk lurks beneath the surface: the potential for concussions.

Artistic swimming, formerly known as synchronized swimming, combines elements of gymnastics and ballet in the water. Teams of up to eight athletes swim quickly, closely and precisely together, coordinating with each other and the music. Often described as beautiful above the water, the sport requires constant furious activity below. It is not uncommon for teammates to kick or land on each other during their routines.

The world of artistic swimming has known for a long time that it has a problem with brain damage, but no one knew how extensive it was. So in 2019, as a student researcher at Stanford, I conducted research on the frequency of concussions in the sport in which I previously participated.

The answer surprised me: In a survey of 430 athletes, about one in four who competed in the United States reported having suffered at least one concussion.

“Yeah, it’s actually a lot more than I expected,” said Karina Boyle, 25, in an interview next to the pool where she trained for most of her career. Boyle, who swam for the national teams, is now retired. “But I know it can be a pretty brutal sport when you’re swimming so close to each other and it’s very active.”

This estimate of a quarter could be low. Fifteen percent of respondents said they thought they had suffered a concussion from artistic swimming, suggesting that the actual overall figure may be closer to 40 percent.

The survey, sent to current and former athletes who have competed in the United States at all levels, was conducted in the spring of 2019 and took into account the number of years each of the swimmers participated in the sport, their ages, the ages at which they suffered their concussions and what type of treatment they sought.

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In recent years, sport has started to take into account his concussion problem. The United States isn’t a powerhouse in the sport – it only sent a pair of artistic swimmers to the Olympics – but USA Artistic Swimming, the sport’s national governing body, has taken steps to promote safety concussions. It is now partnering up with Hammer Head Swim Caps, which make silicone swim caps with a thin honeycomb layer that offers some protection against a badly played foot or arm, or a ruthless pool wall.

The United States national team leaned on the caps during a dangerous throw practice they planned to unveil during an Olympic qualifier in June. No other country had attempted to launch it at this level.

The movement, in which the person thrown in the air falls back into the hands of the throwers, carries the risk that a minor error could result in serious injury to the teammates below. At the start of the practice, American swimmers wore helmet caps.

“A lot of times it didn’t land in the hands so we were careful and made sure to put the caps on before trying it on,” said Anita Alvarez, a 2016 Olympian who was part of the squad. , during a telephone interview in July. Alvarez, 24, and his duo partner Lindi Schroeder, 19, will represent the United States in the duet events at the Tokyo Games.

The long-term effects of head trauma have been studied in many sports over the years, from soccer to boardsports, prompting leagues and federations to adopt protocols to mitigate the effects or the prevalence. But studies of concussions in artistic swimming have been limited.

Concussions tend to be underreported in youth sports for a number of reasons, including athletes’ desire to continue competing, fear of letting teammates down, or simply not recognizing symptoms, the said. Dr Daniel Daneshvar, Director of the recently opened Brain Research and Innovation Institute. who studies the effects of head trauma. Previous research indicates that over 50% of concussions go unreported.

Alvarez, the American Olympian, remembers the summer of 2013 when three of her teammates who were to represent the United States in an eight-person squad at the Pan Am Games were shocked – Karina Boyle, Karensa Tjoa and me.

Boyle had been kicked in the head after a lift, a move in which at least one swimmer is thrown into the air by his teammates.

Tjoa was in tune with seven other swimmers, jumping backwards when she felt a knee hit the back of her head. The rest was a blur.

“I just remember stopping – and in sync, you’re trained to never stop – so it wasn’t usual for me to stop and swim to the side,” Tjoa said. She went out and rested for a bit with ice cream on her head, but when her trainer asked her how she was feeling, she knew something was wrong. “It was different, kind of like I was still underwater somehow.”

She decided to compete in the Pan Am Games after a month’s rest, and the World Junior Championships the following year.

Now 25-year-old Tjoa isn’t sure she made the right choice.

“Every time I tried to get in I had a really big headache, I felt dizzy,” she said looking at the pool where she spent some of her last years in the pool. sport before retiring in 2017. “And so all of those starts and stops, I think, inhibited my recovery, and maybe it took longer than if I had been focusing on recovery at this time. moment.

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I started artistic swimming at the age of 9. I moved from the East Coast to California for better training opportunities and qualified for a few national teams before I got drafted at Stanford University.

I had my first concussion in 2013, at the age of 16. One of my teammates attempted a back flip from my shoulders on a lift. Instead of jumping back, she climbed straight up and fell on my head. It took me months to recover.

Over the past 20 years, artistic swimming has forced athletes to go faster and swim closer to each other, as performance is judged on routine difficulty and technical merit.

USA Artistic Swimming began seriously tackling concussions two years ago, even as it pushed for proximity, power and speed. In addition to promoting protective caps, the organization has partnered with TeachAids, which aims to help coaches better recognize concussions.

Heavy beating is always a concern, but repeated small beating also wreaks havoc, said Dr Daneshvar, whose institute was founded by TeachAids. Sometimes, he said, they can cause chronic traumatic encephalopathy, commonly known as CTE, which has been recognized in retired professional football players. , you can see structural changes on imaging and functional changes on imaging throughout, even within a season, in the brain, ”he said.

Boyle was lucky: she did not suffer another head injury after her 2013 accident. She returned to the sport a few months later to compete for her club team, the Walnut Creek Aquanuts, in Calif. from the North, retiring at the end of this season to pursue university studies.

While she was not free from headaches and nausea in her early months, she ended her last season happy and healthy.

“It was a long process, but it was one of the best years of my synchro career,” Boyle said.

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