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Sync or swim: an unlikely Olympian shares her success

Anne Griffin-Appadoo

14/11/2019

Imagine holding your breath and running for more than half a kilometre, and making it look effortless. If that seems daunting, it’s the reality for some of Australia’s toughest athletes – the fiercely fit synchronised swimming squad.

 

Danielle Kettlewell in her Olympic jacket in front of swimming pool
Olympic swimmer and Curtin graduate Danielle Kettlewell

 

“In synchronised swimming[1], we perform moves that defy physics,” says Curtin graduate and Olympic athlete, Danielle Kettlewell.

“Audiences can be fooled by our big, bright smiles that make it look easy, but that’s part of the act,” she says.

“We create human pyramids and throw each other metres into the air, all without touching the ground – and often without breathing.

“Elite synchro demands performance at a level that very few understand and even fewer achieve.”

Synchronized swimming is an aesthetic sport that weaves together the grace and beauty of dance and ballet, with the discipline and body-awareness of gymnastics, the teamwork components of rowing, the aerobic capacity of free-diving, the mental toughness of a fighter and the acrobatic capabilities of a diver – all wrapped up in a beautiful little bow with glitter, make-up, music, smiles and 50 per cent less oxygen than any other sport.”

The Unlikely Olympian – Danielle Kettlewell

The road to Rio

In 2016, Canadian-born Kettlewell was blown away when she qualified for Australia’s Olympic synchronised swimming squad.

“I started synchro in Canada when I was eight and loved it,” she says. “But I was always the reserve on the team.”

“At eighteen years old, I ‘retired’ because I knew there were two options: try out for the national team, which was never going to happen for me, or retire.

“But a few years later, I was offered an incredible opportunity.”

Kettlewell had just celebrated her twenty-first birthday when she received the life-changing phone call.

“The assistant national coach of the Australian synchro swimming team was searching for more people to join, in the hopes of qualifying for the Rio Olympics,” she explains. “My parents are Aussie so I’ve always held dual citizenship. When she asked me if I wanted to try out, I was amazed, but also overwhelmed with self-doubt.

“However, I knew that I would rather try and fail, instead of wondering ‘what if’.”

The young Canadian relocated to Western Australia in pursuit of her dream and took up a rigorous new training schedule. After months of hard work, she was one of just nine elite swimmers, including three others from Western Australia, to qualify for the Olympic squad.

“I went from being a spectator at the 2012 Olympics to participating in the competition just four years later!” she says.

“It was the most surreal experience of my life.”

 

Danielle Kettlewell and her swimming squad at the 2016 Rio Olympics
Kettlewell (far left) with Olympic swimming squad. Credit: Artistic Swimming Australia

 

The unassuming athlete who had planned to retire just a few years prior, suddenly found herself catapulted onto the world stage.

“Following on from Rio, I competed at the world champs in Budapest in 2017,” she smiles. “And earlier this year, I competed in Australia’s first mixed duet at the 2019 world champs in Gwangju.

“We were only the second Aussies in history to qualify for the synchronised swimming finals at a world championship.”

Diving into study

While world championship training kept Kettlewell extremely busy, she was also keen to complete her Curtin arts degree in internet communications.

“Most days I would wake up at 4:30am to get to the pool for training at 5:15,” she says. “Then I would have 1.5 to 2.5 hours of training in the morning, before I would hop out and head to Curtin.

“Often in the evenings I would be coaching at the local synchronised swimming club or interning at Roy Hill Mine. They were long days.”

Kettlewell studied between classes to ensure her evenings were free to work on side projects. In addition, she accessed study support through Curtin’s Elite Athlete Program.

“The Elite Athlete Program was incredibly helpful,” she says. “It offered me so much flexibility with my assignments and it was awesome to connect with students who competed at Rio too.”

Students relaxing on beanbags underneath the colourful Pines at Curtin University

Growing up in snowy Vancouver, Kettlewell says the Curtin Perth campus was an exciting novelty.

“I loved the campus and how it was all outdoors!” she exclaims.

“Being from Canada, the idea of having a permanent outdoor hammock spot literally blew my mind.”

Kettlewell graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Internet Communications earlier this year.

“It took me eight years to finish my degree,” she laughs. “I studied at four universities in three different countries, with an Olympics in the middle!

“Curtin was my favourite. I felt the lecturers and tutors cared about individual student success and were always available to help.

 

Making a splash online

Kettlewell credits her Curtin degree with helping her to establish a new post-swimming career.

“I retired from swimming in July this year and am now working online to build up a new business as a life coach and motivational speaker,” she reveals.

“Building a website and starting a blog were some of the first assignments I was given at uni – and I’m using those same tools today.

“Internet communications are the future. Everything is going online and communication skills are essential. As an athlete in this age, I’ve been fascinated by the importance of an online presence. It’s no longer enough to be an Olympian, you have to work with – and navigate – the online world to promote your skills and create a career.”

The budding entrepreneur packed her bags earlier this month for Bali to launch her new business.

“My ultimate dream is to create a life where I can be location-free.

“After living life with so much structure and discipline as an athlete, I needed a change of pace,” she explains. “I’ve just launched my first ten-week program called Fearless Dreamers Activation.”

Danielle Kettlewell book cover

The former athlete has also recently published a book about her adventures, called The Unlikely Olympian: Step into Your Fears to Achieve Your Dreams. She hopes her experiences will empower others.

“The book was a real labour of love!” she says. “I tried to write it for about two-and-a-half years with no luck. I kept having writer’s block. With lots of reflection I realised that came from the overall direction of the book. Intially I was writing it as an autobiography, but it didn’t sit well with me. I had this deep desire to use my unusual journey to the [Olympic] Games as a tool to help others in their lives.”

Kettlewell says her website is a great place to start for those wanting to learn more about her motivational work.

“I’m not a gold medalist or world record holder or household name in Australia,” she says. “But I am someone who did something beyond what is possible for many with my level of confidence, lack of belief and skill.

“And while I may no longer be making waves in the pool, I really hope my book, my story, my journey and my teaching will help others achieve their dreams.”

 

[1] Since 2017, ‘synchronised swimming’ has been referred to as ‘artistic swimming’ by international governing body FINA.

Graduate Snapshot

Name: Danielle Kettlewell

Role: Life coach and motivational speaker / Former Olympian athlete

Studied: Bachelor of Arts (Internet Communications)

Graduated: 2019