Ona Carbonell: On motherhood, a tough 2020 and hopes of touching hearts in Tokyo

Ona Carbonell of Spain is a legend in the sport of artistic swimming and, having qualified for their third Olympics, she spoke to Tokyo 2020 about the taboos surrounding motherhood, the challenges of our shared Pandemic Year and her desire to give people something beautiful to savour.

Picture by 2015 Getty Images

Spain’s legendary artistic swimmer Ona Carbonell knows how the world looks from a podium. Only Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte have won more swimming world championship medals. But it’s something that doesn’t come with silverware – or global acclaim – that she’s most proud of ahead of her third trip to the Olympics.

“I’m really happy because this year has been an especially hard one for everyone,” said Carbonell after a second-place finish in the recent Olympic qualifying team event in Barcelona saw her reach Tokyo 2020 (in 2021). “Society in general and in Spain in particular has suffered a lot [in the last year]. Some have lost jobs, others lost loved ones, others are still in vulnerable situations. But we have an opportunity to make people happy through the Games.”

With the perspective that comes with the year that was, the 31-year-old is thinking about more than the glory of podiums, medals and anthems. “We can try to help people have some fun and make them forget, at least for a little while, this terrible year,” she told Tokyo 2020. “Sometimes athletes have the responsibility of trying to make people enjoy and, in our sport, which is artistic, we have a way to reach people’s hearts.”

No medals for motherhood

While there’s no podium place set aside for it, the title of mother is the one Carbonell cherishes above all others. She’d originally chosen not to compete at Tokyo 2020 in order to start a family. And when her son, Kai, was born on 12 August 2020, it meant that, under normal circumstances, she would have missed out on the Games.

But with the COVID-19 pandemic causing the postponement of the Olympics by a year, an opportunity emerged for Carbonell. And just a month and a half after giving birth, she was back in the pool.

“In the European Championship [in May 2021 in Budapest where Carbonell and Spain finished third in the team technical event] I felt relief because I saw myself competing well, and that gave me a lot of confidence,” said Carbonell, pointing out the ways in which society questions whether athletes can return to their best after giving birth. “But at the same time I thought: ‘I’ve been competing for 20 years, I’ve won 23 medals in World Championships and two Olympic medals… How, just because maternity is a taboo, could this make me lose… confidence in myself?’

READ MORE | Ona Carbonell on the need for gender equality

“That’s something that needs to change,” Carbonell added, blowing any such notions out of the water, once more, with her outstanding performance in Barcelona. “The European Championships helped me, and the Olympic Qualifier even more: I swam the two routines, we are qualified for Tokyo, and everyone’s feedback has been really positive.”

And with her son, Kai, now nearly a year old, there on the pool deck, the experience was all the more meaningful for Carbonell. “We were standing there, listening to the scores, when I suddenly saw Kai in the crowd,” she recalled. “I started to cry because it was really poignant for me – I just thought about my son and about all the sacrifices and effort that I went through. I saw him and everything paid off.”

Olympic experience for Spain's swimmers

Carbonell, who won bronze and silver at London 2012, is the only member of the eight-swimmer Spanish team with Olympic experience under her belt. As such, her leadership position among the octet is implicit. “I’ve told them [her teammates] that they shouldn’t be thinking that there are not going to be spectators in Tokyo or that we cannot be with other athletes in the Village… I understand the feeling, but it's better to think the other way around: we are lucky because we are going to experience the most unique Games in every sense. Somehow, Tokyo 2020 will be very special.”

Mayuko Fujiki celebration Preolimpico Barcelona
Picture by 2021 Getty Images

Her Japanese coach, Mayuko Fujiki (a veteran of four Olympic Games), felt a combination of relief and joy after the performance in Barcelona.

“We have been a long time thinking about this [qualifying for the Tokyo Games]: first, one year, then two years... We always had this dream to be in Tokyo. Before the Olympic qualifier, the team was united, but after it, we were even more so. We feel good, not only because of the result, but also because all together we have achieved a common dream.”

Spain, who'll also send a duet pairing to Tokyo, will perform the same two team routines they used in the recent qualifiers, both of them designed and choreographed with a Japanese audience in mind. The Tokyo 2020 (in 2021) Olympic Artistic Swimming competition will take place at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre on 6 and 7 August.

Now all Carbonell needs to complete a full hat-trick of Olympic medals is that elusive gold. Knowing the path to podiums better than most – and with a desire to show the watching world what beauty resides in her heart and her sport – it would be a fool who doubts her.