Hair to­day, gone to­mor­row for Ja­pan’s ‘wa­ter­boy,’ At­sushi Abe ahead of con­test

The China Post - - BUSINESS - BY ALAS­TAIR HIMMER

Ja­pan’s top male syn­chro­nized swim­mer At­sushi Abe has been likened to an old lady for slap­ping on too much make- up and de­scribed as “Drac­ula with a bad hair­cut” — and that’s just by his coach.

But bad hair days and co­ag­u­lat­ing mas­cara are only part of the prob­lem for the 32- yearold as he pre­pares to rep­re­sent his coun­try in the mixed- gen­der duet at the swim­ming world cham­pi­onships, which begin in Rus­sia next month.

Abe, who took up the sport af­ter watch­ing the hit Ja­panese movie “Water­boys” about a group of school­boys who start a syn­chro­nized swim­ming team, is acutely aware of how im­por­tant it is to win over skep­tics af­ter the swim­ming’s world gov­ern­ing body FINA voted to al­low men to com­pete.

“There have been many male syn­chro­nized swim­mers in the past who weren’t able to make it into the sun­light but dili­gently bat­tled on re­gard­less,” Abe told AFP af­ter train­ing with part­ner Yumi Adachi.

“Mixed duet has been in­tro­duced at the world cham­pi­onships and I want to show my deep grat­i­tude to those swim­mers who went be­fore me. It’s be­cause of them that men have been ac­cepted into syn­chro­nized swim­ming and now as a com­rade I want to help grow the sport.”

Abe is mind­ful that Rus­sia was one of the most vo­cal op­po­nents of let­ting men in, with swim­mers and even gov­ern­ment min­is­ters blast­ing a de­ci­sion which could threaten Rus­sia’s stran­gle­hold on a sport in which it has swept ev­ery Olympic gold medal this cen­tury.

It also jars rather awk­wardly with the tra­di­tional im­age of mas­culin­ity the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment vig­or­ously pro­motes.

“I think more men will come into syn­chro and I have a duty to help them feel it’s not out of their reach and that any­one can do it,” added Abe. “I’m aware it’s im­por­tant to co­op­er­ate with for­eign ath­letes to at­tract as many men to the sport as pos­si­ble.”

How­ever, he still has plenty of work to do.

“Breath­ing,” Abe says with a wry smile when asked about the hard­est part of bob­bing up­side down wear­ing a nose peg while ex­e­cut­ing a lung- bust­ing ar­ray of el­e­ments, from the side fish­tail to the egg- beater.

“Prac­tis­ing the el­e­ments is fine, but when we put them to­gether I’m still run­ning out of puff. We’re in­creas­ing our stamina train­ing and peo­ple have said we’re im­prov­ing, but clearly there’s still some way to go.”

Bouf­fant Back­fire

And then there’s the hair — hastily cropped short af­ter tak­ing the pair’s “Phantom of the Opera” rou­tine a touch too lit­er­ally.

“Oh God, that hair!” cried Abe’s coach Masami Hana­mure, re­fer­ring to a flood of neg­a­tive feed­back over his bouf­fant back­fire at the Ja­pan na­tion­als last month.

“We were go­ing for a sort of cute Drac­ula look so he grew it out and greased it back,” she winced. “It was aw­ful and bombed spec­tac­u­larly so we sent him off to get a hair­cut, poor thing.”

As if hair and cos­metic dis­as­ters were not bad enough, Abe caught more flak for a wardrobe mal­func­tion in Tokyo when his cos­tume made it dif­fi­cult to tell him and Adachi apart.

“It looked like there were two girls in the pool,” sighed Hana­mure. “We’re grop­ing in the dark to be hon­est. His makeup made him look like an old woman. Maybe it’s best to have him wear just trunks to show off his mus­cles — but then he isn’t as buff as ( Amer­i­can) Bill May so he’ll have to hit the gym.”

Abe, who spends 10 hours a day in the pool and eats his way through over 3,000 calo­ries daily to bulk up, re­fused to let his coach’s gen­tle- na­tured rib­bing get him down.

“It’s a process of trial and er­ror,” he said. “We’re fum­bling for the right for­mula and the right bal­ance of mas­culin­ity. I had no idea my make-up looked ef­fem­i­nate. I’m no ex­pert but we want to stress the dif­fer­ence be­tween the gen­ders in the wa­ter so I’ll have to do my homework.”

AFP

Ja­pan’s mixed duet pair Yumi Adachi, left, and At­sushi Abe, right, per­form dur­ing the ex­hi­bi­tion at the Ja­pan Syn­chro­nized Swim­ming Cham­pi­onships in Tokyo on May 4.

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