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Clarissa Johnston and Laura Strugnell inspiring new generations in South Africa

Updated: Jan 27, 2022

Clarissa Johnston and Laura Strugnell, 30 and 29 years old respectively, have recently returned from the Toyoko Olympic games where they competed in the artistic swimming event as a duet.

Both swimmers came out of retirement to qualify and compete for the event while holding down fulltime jobs for most of the preparation time. The Games was their first international senior competition together. The pair were coached by Vicky Drinkwater and twotime Egyptian Olympian Reem Abdalazem.

Laura Strugnell started synchro when she was five. She competed in every World Championships between 2011 to 2019. “After these last ones, it didn’t seem that South Africa was going to take the Olympic quota, so I retired. I found out in February of 2020 that they were taking the spot, and that they were going to hold trials,” she explained. As she needed a partner, Laura contacted Clarissa who was also living in Cape Town.

Clarissa Johnston started synchro at age 12 when her family moved to Durban and synchro was offered at Durban Girls College. She swam with Laura on the 13-15 national team in 2005. In 2007, Clarissa was on the senior national team and competed against Egypt for the qualifying spot at the CANA Africa Olympic Trials. After that, she went to Lindenwood University in the United States until 2013. She swam with Reem on the A team during the 2010-2011 season and retired shortly thereafter. This decision meant that they needed to take every opportunity that they had to train in order to qualify and they won both duet events at the South African trials.

“We both worked from 6am to about 1pm. Then, we would train until 4pm, and go back home to work some more. We would do that for three weeks or so a month. Then for one week, we would fly to Johannesburg to be with Vicky. The training there was closer to six or eight hours a day. “Honestly, even though I didn’t take such a big break from synchro, this is the hardest I’ve ever trained in my whole career,” said Clarissa.

Laura teaches swimming professionally. “Not having our coach full time was quite hard. It was a lot to juggle. Vicky would give us training programmes that would last three weeks. We would then send her videos and get her feedback. We also would dial Reem in on Zoom for two hours, two to three times a week, and continue training that way,” she explained.

Both Clarissa and Laura stopped working for July and August 2021 and moved to Johannesburg so that they could have in person coaching. Their coach had no funding from the federation, so has coached Clarissa and Laura for free while also juggling her own job.

The duet’s Olympic goal was to reach scores in the 7s as a minimum, which they proudly achieved. The pair scored 72.1667 in their free routine preliminary and followed that up with 70.9099 in the technical routine. “We got a 72, which is the highest score South Africa’s ever got at a major international event. “It’s kind of been like a glass ceiling for South Africa. So whatever generation comes after us, we’ve set that for them,” concluded Clarissa.

(Adapted from an article by Christina Marmet

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