The GB Artistic Swimmers Going For Olympic Gold and Bonded by an Extraordinary Legacy

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Three decades ago, a pair of British synchronised swimmers by the names of Thorpe and Shortman harboured hopes of competing at the Atlanta 1996 Olympics.

Karen Thorpe and Maria Shortman had originally swum as a duet together during the 1980s before moving on to form two cogs in the larger eight-woman British team. When they failed to qualify for those 1996 Games, their personal Olympic aspirations disappeared. But the flame had not been extinguished.

A generation on, the sport is known as artistic, rather than synchronised, swimming, but there remains a familiarity to the leading British names: Izzy Thorpe and Kate Shortman are preparing to fulfil the Olympic mission their mothers began long before they were even born.

Not only are they assured of competing in Paris this summer, but they will do so as firm contenders to win Britain’s first medal in the 40-year Olympic history of the sport. Gold is a genuine possibility.

Given their mums’ passion for the sport, it is perhaps no surprise that their daughters would follow them into it. The pair first tried artistic swimming in Bristol aged seven and quickly developed a close bond when they were put together as a duet. Through primary school, secondary school and now university, it has grown stronger with each year of sacrifice.

“I remember Wednesdays were our busiest days,” Kate, 22, tells PS UK. “We’d have a swimming session at 6am, go to school for the morning, have ballet at lunch time, then afternoon school and five hours of training in the evening. So you wouldn’t be home until about 10pm having left at 5.30am. That was quite intense.”

After attending the same college in their late teenage years, the pair are now at different universities close to their training base in Bristol with Izzy studying sports rehabilitation at the University of the West of England and Kate studying French and international management at Bath. But time apart is scarce.

“I can’t stress how hard the sport is”

In the build-up to the Olympics, they are committing to 40-hour training weeks. It is no wonder they joke about morphing into the same person. They even have a joint Instagram account.

“We definitely spend more time together than we do with our families,” says Kate. “Even more than I do with my boyfriend.”

Izzy, 23, adds: “I don’t have a sister, just a brother. So Kate’s like the sister I never had.”

Despite their relative youth, they have already gathered a wealth of experience in the sport, having competed at their first World Championships while still at school in 2017. They missed out on the final when finishing 14th on their Olympic debut in 2021, but have flourished under a major scoring overhaul to ensure the sport is less subjective.

Related: Meet the Team GB Athletes Whose Stories You Need to Know Ahead of the 2024 Olympics

“It eliminates a lot of the bias that was in the sport,” explains Izzy. “Previously it would be a lot down to what country you were from.”

After the scoring system changed, Kate promptly claimed Britain’s first ever World Championships medal in 2023 in the solo discipline, which is not contested at the Olympics. Earlier this year, she then combined with Izzy to take World Championships duet silver and bronze, before they outlined their podium potential when winning the Paris Olympics test event title. Remarkably, their rise to the top has come despite only being deemed worthy of receiving National Lottery funding for the first time last year.

Should they win gold again in Paris this summer, it would likely prove life-changing for the pair, not to mention alter some misconceptions about their gruelling sport. They train in gymnastics, practise yoga and spend minutes at a time submerged: Kate can hold her breath underwater for three minutes.

“I can’t stress how hard the sport is,” she says. “Because it’s so glamorous, we’ve got our costumes on, it’s a distraction from the fact that this is a really, really hard sport.

Izzy adds: “We’re supposed to be smiling so you can’t see the pain. The smile is fake.”

They do not shy away from the scale of their ambitions, with Kate confirming they “absolutely” want to win gold. “We’ve got our sights firmly set on it,” she says.

Doing so would cap a unique family journey. Kate’s mum Maria helped coach the pair in their early days, while Izzy’s mum Karen now leads Britain’s artistic swimming setup in the build-up to the Olympics.

Related: Bianca Williams: “I’m Living Proof That It’s Possible to Be an Athlete and a Mum”

The two families regularly have dinner together near their respective homes in Bristol and are so intertwined that they even own the same breed of dog.

“Being able to say you’ve done it with someone the whole way – through the ups and downs, to share those memories with someone – is really special,” says Izzy. “Whatever happens at the Olympics it will be special.”

Ben Bloom is a freelance writer who began his journalism career as a local news reporter before focusing on sport in 2012. He spent 11 years at The Telegraph, where he wrote on a wide range of sports, leading the paper’s coverage at three Olympic Games. His work saw him nominated for a British Sports Journalism Award.

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