As Sissi Li Hanzhang and her partner emerge from under the water, they put on their sweetest smiles and begin their mesmerising routine.
The pair are perfectly in sync as they move their arms in time with the upbeat music, all while keeping their upper bodies above the water.
Then they dive, turn upside down and pierce the pool’s surface with their pointed toes. Sissi launches her partner into the air, setting her up for a perfect backflip.
It was hard for audiences at the Fina World Youth Artistic Swimming Championships 2019 to take their eyes off the dynamic duo, as they danced with effortless grace in the water.
What the audiences did not see, however, was the real show beneath the surface.
The Chinese mixed duet put on a display of exceptional athleticism underwater, where they held their breath, kept their eyes open and used eggbeater kicks and sculling, moving their hands to propel their bodies, to support their balletic grace above the water.
The pair came in sixth place at the tournament held in Slovakia in August. Although she didn’t go home with any shiny medals, Sissi felt it was an honour to represent her country at a top-tier competition.
“I knew we wouldn’t come in first place, so we didn’t think too much and just did our best,” Sissi tells Young Post in a telephone interview.
The 14-year-old was introduced to synchronised swimming, also known as artistic swimming, when she was nine. With a strong background in swimming, many of her friends thought the discipline would be easy for Sissi to pick up, but she was quick to correct them, saying the Olympic sport requires skills from three separate fields – swimming, of course, but also gymnastics and ballet.
“Sometimes, people think my sport is easy, because synchronised swimmers are always smiling,” Sissi says.
“Truth is, in order to get high scores, we have to smile to make it look easy.”
The Chinese national team, which has won medals in the last three Olympic Games, is known for its intense training format and strict discipline.
A member of the Shenzhen city team, Sissi admits not everyone can handle the taxing and stressful training schedule, which is typically 15 hours per week, but it can go up to 48 hours a week during her school holidays.
On top of enduring long training hours, Sissi is under great pressure to perfect her routine, as her coaches have little tolerance for errors. One time, her coach was so upset at her mistakes that she threw a metal chair into the pool, and made Sissi pick it up.
“My coaches are really tough; a lot of my teammates had great potential but stopped training because they couldn’t handle the pressure,” says Sissi.
“But I know they’re being strict for us to improve, so I won’t give up easily.”
The teen’s tenacity and talent caught the attention of the Guangdong regional team, which has recruited Sissi several times before. But since regional team athletes have to train on a full-time basis, Sissi had to turn down the offer because she wants to continue her education at Harrow International School Hong Kong.
The Year 10 student transferred to the school four years ago, as she felt like the international schools in Shenzhen did not suit her. She stays in the boarding school in Tuen Mun, and returns home on Tuesday and Friday for her practice. While travelling back and forth between the neighbouring cities is tiring, Sissi knows it is a sacrifice worth making.
“Sometimes I’m quite jealous of my friends because they have so much free time, but I know I have to compromise if I want to go to school and do synchronised swimming at the same time,” she said.
With the competition season coming to an end, Sissi can loosen up a little and dedicate more time to her schoolwork (and maybe leisure time). She won’t stop practising completely though, as she has set out to make the representative list to join the junior and senior world championships in five years’ time.
“I really love the sport and I know I have the talent to do it at a high level,” Sissi says.
“The World Championships is definitely the competition I want to take part in at least once in my career.”