Aleksandr Maltsev: What it's like being Russia's first male artistic swimmer
Being a man at the elite level of artistic swimming (formerly known as synchronised swimming) can be a thankless task.
Just ask Aleksandr Maltsev, who knows this better than most. The four-time world champion is one of very few men taking part in a sport which has traditionally been seen as being for "women only", an image Maltsev wants to erase.
Alongside American veteran Bill May, Maltsev is a pioneer in the sport, helping advance men's and mixed duet artistic swimming to new heights.
"In Russia, I was the first man in synchronised swimming in our country," the 24-year-old acknowledged in an interview with FINA Magazine.
"It was a challenge to come a long way alone. I have been the only one - (as a) boy, teenager and man - in the sport for many years."
The path to change
Maltsev first trained with the national team aged 15, and moved to Moscow three years later in 2013 to work with his new coach Gana Maksimova and her mother Maria.
The road has been far from smooth, but Maltsev says: "I knew that I took the right path.
"I’ve faced misunderstanding or negative reactions, but I was confident that those people were mistaken, not me," he added.
When he first started, there was no clear goal.
"At the very beginning of my career I was just training because I loved the sport. I wanted to improve; to learn something new.
"I believed that one day the situation would change. And it finally happened."
Artistic swimming for men made its FINA World Championships debut in Russia. The first mixed duet events took place in Kazan in 2015.
Canada’s artistic swimming team challenges the Buff Dudes to a workout
Artistic swimming trailblazer
Maltsev, partnering Darina Valitova, won silver behind May and Kristina Lum in the mixed technical event in 2015 before the two pairs reversed their positions in the mixed free routine event.
He and May are clearly trailblazers for men in the sport, a position the St Petersburg native is happy to hold.
"Inspired and encouraged by my performances, other boys have started taking up artistic swimming," he said. "It's so nice to hear some good words and gratitude from their parents, to realise that I’m a role model for someone.
"The stereotype that artistic swimming is a female sport has been dismantled. The attitude towards men in the pool has changed greatly since 2015 World Championships; it's night and day."
The four-time European champion also rejects the idea that men in artistic swimming need to dominate the performance or be muscular.
"(That's a) disputable statement. To my mind, the man's figure in artistic swimming should be harmonious," he said, adding: "A bag of muscles will be useless. We need mobility and plasticity."
While mixed duets artistic swimming has now been on the schedule at three FINA World Championships – Maltsev has won four of six possible golds – it remains a non-Olympic event. For now. That is something Maltsev hopes will change in the future.
In fact, he says, his long-term aims have become different, too.
"Artistic swimming and particularly mixed duet events are not only about competing and fighting for medals any more for me.
"My goal is still to be a champion. But now I see the reason [...] to make my sport popular, spectacular, to encourage progress. Men have their own role in artistic swimming and it will develop in this direction," he added.
"And of course my dream is to take part at the 2024 Olympics as part of the mixed duet competitions."