Synchronised swimming - ‘It’s all about timing — you have to be bang on, a bit like dancing’
A new film follows a group of male synchronised swimmers. John Meagher talks to athlete Ronan Daly about how he became involved in the sport
When you think of synchronised swimming - that's if this most arcane of pool disciplines ever crosses your mind - you'll likely think of toned young women bearing full make-up and rictus smiles throwing bizarre choreographed shapes to classical music.
You're almost certainly not going to think of a bunch of middle aged men - none of whom boasts the sort of body to appeal to the makers (or viewers) of Love Island - so desperate to stay afloat they can barely muster a smile.
That's the premise of a new film, British comedy Swimming with Men: rather than getting their kicks from five-a-side football or pints of beer in their local, this collection of misfits bond by learning synchronised swimming - and by braving the pool-side sniggers. And yet, somehow, these very ordinary men go on and nab a medal at a prestigious international tournament for male practitioners of the discipline.
It sounds like the stuff of pure fantasy, but the film was, in fact, inspired by a bunch of Swedish men who fancied partaking in one of the few sports that's almost entirely a female domain. They got good - so good, in fact, that they triumphed at an overseas games, a bit like the one featured in the film.
What the writers of the film hadn't originally realised was that in London - where it is set - there was a group of middle-aged male swimmers keen to crush the reverse sexism of synchronised swimming and make their own waves in the pool.
One of those swimmers was Ronan Daly, an Englishman with Irish parents, and he ended up playing a crucial part in Swimming with Men. "They were looking for men who had done synchronised swimming to help with some of the moves," he says, speaking to the Irish Independent in Dublin. "Then they needed someone to be a body double and then they just said 'Would you have time to spare to be in the film?'."
And that's how Daly - who divides his time between a house he bought in Longford and the London home he shares with partner Charles - wound up in what could well be one of the sleeper hits of the summer.
"It was such a great experience to be part of it," he says, "and I really hope it reaches a big audience. It's funny and it also has something to say about that middle-age period for men when they're asking questions of themselves and how their lives are going."
He got to work with an impressive cast, including comic actor Rob Brydon - the film's star - Jim Carter, who played the gruff butler, Carson, in Downtown Abbey and Rupert Graves, familiar as Inspector Lestrade in the BBC's rebooted Sherlock.
Their coach is played by Charlotte Riley, celebrated for her turn in Peaky Blinders, and it's a role she plays with relish.
Not all were gifted swimmers when practice began but Daly (50) says they were quick learners. "Maybe it's that thing about being an actor," he says.
"You pick up instruction very quickly. Ollie [director Oliver Parker] would suggest one way to say dialogue and they'd do it perfectly and then for the next scene, he'd ask them to try something subtly different and they'd be able to nail that too."
He says he hopes the film will encourage other men to try traditionally female pursuits like synchronised swimming, but suggests its unlikely there will be an explosion of popularity in this speciality water sport irrespective of the success enjoyed by the film.
"It requires a group of people for a start," he says. "Often swimming is a solitary pursuit and people enjoy that aspect of it. But by its very name, synchronised swimming is something that requires a team. And like any team effort, there's that great sense of collective achievement."
Daly happened upon it by accident 10 years ago. Charles had suggested they do something fun together, like swimming, and Ronan - who preferred night clubs and bars to municipal swimming pools - quipped that he would do so if there was a men's synchronised swimming club there. He fully expected that there wouldn't be and was shocked when, in fact, there was. "It's something I couldn't wiggle out of," he says, with a chuckle. "So I kept my word and I'm really glad I did."
Soon Daly found himself going to sessions multiple times a week and he got fitter than he ever could have imagined. "When you look at it on TV, it looks very serene and graceful - a bit like ballet, but upside down - but it requires a lot of work and you really feel you've worked out at the end of a session. Your lung capacity improves significantly very quickly.
"And there's a lot of artistry to it if you're going to do it properly," he adds. "It's all about timing - you have to be bang on, a bit like dancing. If you get the timing wrong, you throw the whole thing off."
Daly's team prospered to such a degree they went on to compete at the Gay Games, a prestigious competition for LGBT athletes, and they won gold in 2010.
He says victory was special but it's the friendships that he made through the sport that he values most. "And that's the essence of the film too," he says. "Yes, they achieve far more in the pool than they thought they would, but it's about the friendships they make and that bit of self-discovery that makes it so charming."
The film was shot last year and Daly was able to commit the time because he works in a sector - freelance property management - that allows him to set his own time. And the purchase of an old rectory in Longford some years earlier gave him the opportunity to escape the rat race frequently.
"I grew up with a very strong sense of being Irish," he says. "We would spend a lot of time in Wexford where my mother was from, so I always loved the idea of spending as much of the time as I could in Ireland."
He has no familial connection to Longford, but fell in love with the property when he saw it advertised. "And it's in a part of the country where property prices are as low as anywhere in Ireland, at least that was the case when I bought it."
He says he had misgivings about being an openly gay man in rural Ireland but says he and Charles have been warmly welcomed.
"It feels like a very different country than the one I'd visit as a boy. It was still a great place then, but Ireland is special and when you come from somewhere else you can really sense that."
Daly hopes to spend increasing amounts of time in Ireland and may have to get used to his 15 minutes of fame when Swimming with Men opens. Maybe he will even be inspired to start Longford's first all-male synchronised swimming team. Who knows? Stranger things have happened.
Swimming with Men is released on July 6.