By Sam Loveys
When Sonia Dunn committed to McGill University, she had her eyes on joining the school’s renowned artistic swim team. But there’s an added bonus, too: she’ll also join her close friend and past teammate Clara Thomas, who’s one year older and competed for McGill last season.
The last time the pair swam together, they became the Ontario junior duet champions for the GO Capital Artistic Swimming Club in 2022.
“Clara and I are very close. We’ve kept in touch this whole year,” Dunn highlights. “It’ll kind of be like getting back together with an old friend.”
Training endlessly to perfect their routines created a strong bond between the two. In a sport with a high demand for synchronization, staying on the same wavelength was important, Dunn notes.
But after spending much of her young career excelling in team routines, Dunn has recently come to appreciate the individuality of solo competition.
“I was originally very adverse to solo. I was kind of scared of the event, but I’ve grown to really come to like it,” Dunn signals. “I feel like all the pressure is on you, so you’re in control of everything. There’s no outside variables other than yourself.”
Solo performances allow Dunn to have more freedom in her choreography, creating a unique style that best suits her.
“I’m a very intense swimmer and I do movements with a lot of sharpness,” she says. “We try to pick choreography that lends itself to my style of swimming.”
Of her 12 provincial championships, this year marked the first time she won as an individual. Her prior 11 were all in team or duet competitions.
“This was the first time I won it completely by myself and so that was a really good feeling,” Dunn recalls. “It was a goal I’d had for a really long time and I knew when I finished my swim that it was the best I could possibly do.”
She went on to place eighth in the junior women’s solo free event at the 2023 Canadian championships this past May in Calgary. Due to the global pandemic, this was only Dunn’s third national competition, despite her high level of performance.
The event itself was difficult. Not only was competition stronger, but the high altitude proved troublesome for traveling athletes. Although Dunn headed to Calgary a few days early to adjust, she still struggled to perform in the cardio-intensive sport.
“It felt harder to take deep breaths and so the routine felt more tiring than it did in Ottawa,” she recounts. “We were basically swimming with less air.”
Another challenge was the new scoring system, changed to align artistic swimming scoring closer to artistic gymnastics and figure skating. Now, judges score based on the difficulty of each skill, making the process less arbitrary.
“We didn’t really know how we were going to place,” Dunn details. “For my solo we made changes in between my preliminary swim and my final swim to make me more competitive on start value.”
An unlikely beginning
Sonia took up artistic swimming after a chance encounter as a child. A friend brought her to a sibling’s competition, hoping to pass the time while her parents watched the swimmers.
“I didn’t end up being a good friend because I was just so enthralled by watching the show,” Dunn smiles. “I knew right away that I wanted to do it.”
Originally joining the Nepean Artistic Swim Club, Dunn moved to GO Capital and quickly found success. Major career highlights include her provincial gold medal in the duet free competition in 2020, and her team’s national win in 2019 – one of Dunn’s favourite moments.
“Our club had only existed for five years and we beat out a lot more established clubs,” she explains. “It was also my first year at the national level, so it was a great way to cap off our season.”
Dunn plans to study pharmaceutical science at McGill and is already considering becoming a pharmacist after graduation. The Canadian national artistic swimming team is also based in Montreal – a goal that’s never out of the picture for Dunn.
“It’s definitely something I’m taking into consideration, but it hasn’t really swayed me,” Dunn indicates. “My main focus right now is swimming as long as I can and enjoying it to the fullest.”
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