Synchronised swimming duo honoured at Out For Sport Awards

Published by Jon Holmes on

Out To Swim Angels’ Stephen Adshead and Steph Ramsay recognised for outstanding club commitment at event recognising LGBT+-inclusive sport heroes…

By Jon Holmes

The ongoing fight for gender equality and representation in synchronised swimming has been marked with two awards for key figures from the Out To Swim Angels team.

Stephen Adshead, the former team captain and chair of the Angels, won the Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award at Friday night’s Out For Sport Awards ceremony, having been with the group since its inception in 2009.

Steph Ramsay, the chair of the Out To Swim synchro section, picked up a Club Spirit Award for her strong sense of community throughout an immensely challenging 2020, building on her dedication since joining the Angels nearly five years ago.

The Out To Swim Angels are one of the UK’s leading synchronised swimming teams

The OFS Awards event, held virtually and following on from the successful inaugural event at London’s City Hall in 2019, recognises individuals and clubs from across the LGBT+-inclusive sports community in London and the South East.

Other honours on the night went to London Royals Hockey’s Ella Slade, also winning a Club Spirit Award; Charlton Invicta FC, who claimed the Most Innovative Lockdown Initiative prize; and Goal Diggers FC, who were named Club of the Year.

In the last decade, Adshead has played a pivotal role in the ongoing campaign for men to be both represented and made more visible in synchronised swimming, lobbying world governing body FINA and the International Olympic Committee on inclusion, and raising awareness through the media.

The admission of the mixed duet in the World Aquatics Championships in recent years has marked a significant breakthrough for Adshead and his fellow campaigners, but the fight continues at Olympic level, with the event recently omitted again for Paris 2024.

Speaking to Sports Media LGBT+, Adshead says he was “touched and honoured” to be put forward for an OFS Award.

“I was never expecting any particular recognition but when you have put in that effort, it’s nice to get a thank you after all these years,” he said.

“We started up as the Angels in 2009 as a bit of fun. No one could agree who’d take the lead, so I ended up doing it – and that lasted for 10 years.

“We never set out to compete but then we lobbied the ASA, the governing body in the UK, to include us. Through our hard work, in the end they relented and they let us into the competitions and we put male swimmers in, and mixed teams.” The wider campaign resulted in FINA including the mixed duet in a World Championships programme for the first time in Kazan in 2015.

Ramsay had several years of synchro experience when she became part of the Angels in 2016. “I got a message from someone at Out To Swim saying they were short on people and needed to get a team together for nationals,” she explained. “They asked, ‘you could help out for a couple of months, right?’ Now it’s accidentally turned into coming up five years.”

She didn’t know OTS was an LGBT+-inclusive club when she turned up for the first time at the club’s Queen Mother Sports Centre base in Victoria. “Somehow I’d failed to notice all the rainbows, and I just hadn’t realised – but it was super exciting because I had no idea that this side of sport existed.

“I started going to swimming training, then I became a competition rep, and then chair of the synchro side. Occasionally I get to sleep!”

The Angels’ story begins in Barcelona, shortly before the 2008 Olympics. The Spanish team were rehearsing their ‘Stairway To Heaven’ routine, which would go on to earn them silver medals and become famous within the sport. Watching from poolside was Adshead and a group of follow OTS swimmers.

“We were doing a regular competition at the EuroGames,” he recalls. “During a lunch break, we were sat around the pool and the Spanish team came in to practice. We saw their routine and thought it was brilliant – it was so creative and distinctive, and they looked fierce.

This video of the Spanish team performing the routine at the 2009 World Swimming Championships in Rome has had over 15m views on YouTube

“Soon we were saying, ‘we can do that’. We came back to London, advertised for a coach, and one person responded. She got the job!”

He claims the Angels were “completely useless to start with” but under the influence of experienced coach Sanela Nikolic, their improvement was swift. Adshead started the Male Synchro Challenge in a bid to encourage more men to get involved, with the aim of being part of a team within a year. It proved to be a big success, and many came through the programme and became core members of OTS.

Interest from the media hotted up in both the build-up and aftermath of London 2012, with ABC News in the US among the networks to report on the Angels. This attention was repeated for the Rio Games and Tokyo, as synchro remained a resolutely women-only discipline in Olympic competition. The campaigning and headlines have also sparked the interest of the entertainment industry.

“Because we’re a novelty, we got asked to do bits of TV – we did a series called Jo Brand’s Big Splash when we opened a leisure centre while doing a routine with her.” But the biggest call came a few years later, when Adshead was sat at his desk at work in Covent Garden – the producers of a movie called ‘Swimming With Men’ wanted to talk to the Angels.

“They phoned up to ask for my advice on what male synchro was like in practice, and asked me to pop in,” he says. “I went along to see them and was very animated and excited about it. On the way out, someone asked me when I’d be available to be in the film. I said no one had told me it was an audition!

“In the end, our swimmers Ronan Daly and Chris Jepson took parts in the movie alongside the stars, including Rob Brydon, Daniel Mays, and Jim Carter.”

‘Swimming With Men’, directed by Oliver Parker, hit UK cinemas in July 2018 and is now available on streaming services

Adshead and team-mates were on set for three days playing the part of an Italian synchro team and he also featured in a spin-off sketch from the movie filmed for BBC1’s Sport Relief 2018. “We did a day in the Olympic pool doing a routine. It was filmed in March – the day before the shoot, Rob Brydon had slipped over on an icy garden path at home and injured his wrist.

“For my position in this routine, we had to link hands and I had to grab Rob’s wrist and I could see him grimacing every time. I was terrified about breaking it!”

Stephen joined Rob Brydon and rest of the ‘Swimming With Men’ cast for their Sport Relief routine three years ago

Adshead is suitably modest about his role in changing the hearts and minds of swimming bigwigs on the matter of men in synchro, but Ramsay says it has been considerable.

“It’s a really traditional sport and doesn’t want to change for anyone,” she says. “So to get in at the World Championships and the British Masters is significant.

“I received an email from one of the top guys in FINA the other week which effectively said, ‘we are completely for this now’. It might not be Stephen on his own that’s done it but his perseverance has really contributed. He’s been pushing it for the best part of a decade and I don’t think we’d have seen it without him.”

Aleksandr Maltsev

There’s immense talent out there, such as Russia’s Aleksandr Maltsev who won double gold at the last Worlds in Gwangju in 2019, and is considered by many to be the world’s best male synchro artist. There are several reasons for the mixed duet’s continued Olympic omission – many sports and disciplines within sports are vying for Games exposure, for one – but Adshead feels there is still a perception that the quality of entrants wouldn’t be high enough to warrant the biggest stage of all.

“There’s an equality point to it but also a chicken and egg thing – the people always say there are not enough good people to justify putting the event in, but then there’s the argument that if you don’t put the event in, you won’t get enough good people.

“Ultimately, unless it’s seen at the top, people further down don’t have that to aspire to.”

Out To Swim’s combination team competing at Nationals in 2020

His personal Angels highlights include the first gold won by the team, at an event in Cologne in 2012, and getting to compete in the British Masters for the first time. Meanwhile, Ramsay has not only picked up the leadership baton but has also kept the Angels aiming high.

Sam Weinberg and Tal Link

Three years ago in Slovenia, she was part of the first Angels team at a European Masters, and she took great pride – as did the whole OTS family – when Samuel Weinberg and Tal Link came away from the 2019 World Masters in Gwangju with gold medals in the 25-29 Years Mixed Duet category. It remains the club’s greatest triumph to date.

“That was particularly special,” she says. “The first time I swam with the Angels, I faced a bit of confusion from swimmers that I’d known from my previous life in synchro. ‘Why would you swim with them?’ was what some were saying – there was almost an element of ‘men in synchro, that’s a bit funny’.

“Now the mixed duet is going to Worlds and winning gold. That was an Angels achievement and it was fantastic.”

During the pandemic, she has focused her efforts on keeping the Angels community engaged and entertained, thus earning her that Club Spirit gong. “We’ve been very limited on what we can do – it’s been regular Zoom sessions to do flexibility and strength.

“But we’ve also had more of the regular OTS swimmers involved in what we do, and vice versa. It’s the most crossover we’ve ever had. We also did training in parks to see each other when we were allowed to, and that meant quite a lot because we weren’t back in the water for very long before another lockdown. I’ve had a great committee and coaching team working hard to keep the team together.”

Both Adshead and Ramsay are passionate not only about the Angels, but about LGBT+-inclusive sport in general and the importance of clubs like all those in the Out For Sport community.

“In the beginning, the point was that LGBT+ people weren’t really accepted in mainstream sport so they had to find somewhere else, and they set up the clubs,” says Adshead “Now it’s got a broader role – it serves that same purpose but it’s also an alternative social, safe space, a way of connecting with people, and making ourselves seen within our sports.

“From our perspective as the Angels, it’s been a reverse situation – it’s not like there are hordes of straight men doing synchro swimming, is it? We’re a unique example.”

Ramsay echoes that view. “If you look at the origin stories of quite a few LGBT+ sports clubs, one of the first things said by those original members is ‘we wanted somewhere to go that wasn’t a bar’. There’s still that need for community that’s away from partying, but that offers a level of protection to LGBT+ athletes.

“There are certain stigmas that persist within sport and access difficulties, particularly when you look at the trans part of our community. We’ve had swimmers come to us from other clubs during their transition because they were uncomfortable doing that in their original club. And so they’ve come to us happily presenting as they should be. There’s always going to be a need for it.”

As well as the pandemic, an injury has limited Adshead’s own participation in the last year, but with the abundant energy of Ramsay and the rest of the Angels team, they will surely keep stretching and striving for the joy of the sport and in competition for many years to come. “Thanks to the coaches, the swimmers, all the volunteers – it has been hard work over the years – but I’ve loved it,” he says.

And other than that elusive Olympics berth for the mixed duet, are there any other targets? “The thing we haven’t done yet that we want to do is a multi-sports event in London,” adds Adshead. “We bid for the 2018 Gay Games but it went to Paris. I feel it will all come together when we get our event in London.”

Thank you and congratulations to Stephen and Steph – learn more about Out For Sport and Out To Swim on their websites, and follow OFS on Twitter and Instagram.

Sports Media LGBT+ were also winners at Friday’s event, with Jon Holmes picking up a Federation of Gay Games Sports Media Award – thank you FGG! Congratulations too to fellow Gay Games Awards winners Sarah Townsend and Shamey Cramer who were named FGG Volunteers of the Year, and Trans Can Sport’s Rory Finn and Marquita Smith who were recognised for their Outstanding Contribution to Trans Sport Participation.

Sports Media LGBT+ is a network, advocacy, and consultancy group that is helping to build a community of LGBT+ people and allies in sport. Learn more about us and see our calendar of forthcoming events here.

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Jon Holmes

Digital Sports Editor