Southlympians make it big

Students attend Junior Olympics for aquatic sports

Emily Pavlik and Jame Sewell

Water has always been a major part of  Junior Olympian senior Katie Abraham’s life. Since being introduced to swimming between the ages of six and seven, Abraham learned to expand her skills in the pool. Now she has been training for the Junior Olympics for water polo since 2020.

Abraham started playing water polo at the start of her freshman year, which she said put her at a major disadvantage. Starting the sport later than most players, Abraham continuously worked on her skills. Although she had a difficult time adjusting to being a new player, Abraham started to strive on the encouragement of her teammates.

“My teammates have really been supportive [of] me because starting water polo your freshman year is a very late start,” Abraham said. “If I [didn’t] understand something that [was] happening, [my teammates] would always show me. They were just really supportive.”

The USA Water Polo Junior Olympics Championships, also known as the JO’s, is the largest age group water polo tournament in the nation. Athletes compete over four days across the United States.

Training Abraham on the sidelines of the pool, Jimmy Heard, Head Coach for East Side Water Polo Club, believes Abraham is a huge contributor to her club team and is dedicated to perfecting her skills.

“Katie is definitely a hard worker,” Heard said. “She grinds through difficult swim and leg sets, [and she’s] a contributor to the team’s personality.”

Water polo is a sport that requires constant swimming, the use of only one hand on the ball at a time, and wrestling defenders. These are physical factors Heard perceives to be “extremely difficult.” However, he finds Abraham’s main strength in the pool to be her aggressiveness.

“It was the second to last game, [and] Katie had driven in from the wing, she ended up getting the ball,” Heard said. “She was swarmed by two additional defenders, so she had a total of three defenders on her. She was able to fight them off and score.”

“[In] water polo you’re surrounded by people and you actually get to talk at practice,” Abraham said. “I feel like you can be a lot closer as an entire team than you could be with swimming.”

Like Abraham, junior Sakura Honda also participated in the Junior Olympics but for synchronized swimming. Containing over 1,000 athletes that range from 15-to-18-years-old, it is the biggest competition for synchronized swimmers in the nation.

“First, you have to get level testings where you have to get a certain level to even [tryout] for the Junior Olympics,” Honda said. “You need at least level two, and [once] you get that you have to go through states. You have to qualify in the top three and then you have zones, and then after you qualify for that you have to go to regionals. After you get regionals, you get to go to JO’s.”

Honda began competing for both swimming and rhythmic gymnastics in Japan, until she combined the two skills into synchronized swimming. From Japan, she moved to Indonesia, then to America, adapting to the different regiments, people, and coaching styles in each country. Sakura’s mother, Noriko Honda was exposed to the struggles Sakura faced while traveling to multiple countries together.

“When we moved from Japan to Indonesia, [Sakura] needed to pause because there weren’t any clubs nearby,” Noriko said. “After three years, she could resume. According to Indonesian national rules, she couldn’t compete with the team in competition because of her [foreign] nationality. My husband and I [tried to]  persuade the national swimming foundation continuously, then finally she was accepted to compete.”

In the United States, she has also experienced struggles. Due to the lack of popularity of the sport, her club merged with a couple others. This change, Sakura explained, forced her to take on a new role in her team, as she was more experienced than the others. The adjustment proved to ultimately be positive for her, but it was hard to adjust at first.

“The synchronized swimming population is low, so I don’t get a lot of people who are the same level,” Sakura said. “In the team, there were times when my duet partner and I, who are the same level, just got frustrated. We’ve gotten into conflicts because we want to compete on our level, but we have to wait for the team to catch up, we had to be patient with that.”

Honda acknowledged that she applies a lot of pressure on herself to perform perfectly, especially when her coach throws difficult skills in her routine.

“I sometimes cry before events because I get too nervous,” Sakura said. “I can’t breathe, I get panic attacks, and I have to have my coach tell me to breathe, or breathe into a bag.”

Sakura feels that she shares a special bond with her coach, and they are friends more than anything. Compared to past coaches Honda has found it valuable to have mentor that genuinely wants you to succeed.

“Right now, the coach I have I’m really close to,” Sakura said. “She gives me private attention, and it shows that she cares about me. [In] clubs [like] Japan, the coaches are super strict, [and] you can’t talk to coaches like your friends, but the coach I have here, she’s the complete opposite of that. She’s like a friend to me, so I’m very close to her.”

Sakura’s favorite part of her sport is the friendships she has made along her journey. Even after they have parted, she  keeps in touch with them, continuing to compare scores and compete from afar.

“The first year I moved here I met my duet partner,” Sakura said. “She was from a different country, so [we] got really close because we were the same level. That’s the closest bond I’ve ever made, in terms of relationships. What you call supporting each other and ideal teammates, we were that.”

For Sakura, synchronized swimming has had such an important impact on her life, and will always be part of it in some capacity.

“I’ll always be around water,” Sakura said.