by Dax Lowery, Swimming World Contributor.
U.S. National Team coach Lolli Montico can thank her mom’s inattention to detail for her career in synchronized swimming.
Born in Rome, Montico grew up in the water. She was already swimming competitively, winning trophies as the fastest swimmer in her age group, when her mom accidentally signed her up for synchro at the local club.
She was upset at first but soon discovered she loved the sport. She eventually found she enjoyed coaching it even more.
Her successful run leading several Italian club and national teams led to her coaching at three different Olympics – for three different countries.
Montico took time while driving to a recent practice in California to talk about her life in synchro, highlighting her early days as an athlete, her coaching success, her involvement in helping athletes with Down syndrome, her favorite moments in the sport and the future of the U.S. team.
Where did you grow up and how did you get involved with synchro?
I was born on the seaside of Rome. I used to see the Mediterranean out of my window. And so obviously I spent all of my youth on the beach and at the swimming pool because my parents wanted me to learn swimming right away.
Tell us about the mistake that led to your start in synchro.
Every year my parents would go to the swimming pool and apply for the next year. The mistake was that my mom put my name on the wrong list. And so when I went to the pool for the first practice, my coach said, ‘Oh, I heard that you’re moving.’ And I said, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa – what’s going on?’ ‘You’re going for synchro now.’ I was quite upset. I said, ‘No, I don’t want to move to synchro.’ And they said, ‘OK, then you can move back.’ Then the synchro side said, ‘No, you applied. We’re counting on you.’ So for one year I practiced both. I would double practice, doing speed swimming and synchronized swimming. I thought, I will do this for a bit. But, obviously I liked (synchro). That year I won one of the major swimming competitions just before nationals, so I won a big trophy and I was the fastest for my age. I took that like, OK, it’s better to quit with a nice reward and I will now dedicate my time to synchro.
When did you start coaching?
In three years, I won the Italian national championship with the synchro team. I remember that one day my coach had a doctor’s appointment and she couldn’t attend the practice. She asked me to lead the session because I was the oldest, and I actually enjoyed that more than practicing. And so something changed in my life. I thought, OK, I like teaching. So I started teaching the little girls. And then those little girls started getting better and better. Then one of the most important clubs in Rome asked me to join their coaching staff. I thought, whoa, that’s a big change. I had applied for the sports university in Rome, so I would spend all day in the city, starting in the morning, coaching in the afternoon, and coming back at home really late at night. You know, when you’re young you have lots of energy – you can do anything, right? And then I remember when I took this group of girls (13-15-year-olds) to the Italian championships. At the first practice, I realized that my kids were the best in Italy. From that moment I took coaching more seriously and it became my profession. I decided not to find a teaching job but to keep going with synchro. And I’ve never stopped.
How did you come to coach for Italy at the 2004 Olympics, and what was that experience like?
(The Italian Federation) decided that the club that was winning the national championship would compete at the Comen Cup. We won the Italian national championship eight years in a row, so I went to eight Comen Cups – and we won six of those. And then those young girls became juniors and I moved to the junior national team and coached them for three years until they went to the World Championships in 1999 in Colombia, where we won three bronze medals – solo, duet and team. That was a great success. I remember I received a really nice letter from the president of the federation – I still have it framed – saying thank you for my hard work. After that, the juniors become seniors, and that’s how I become the seniors’ assistant coach for the Olympic team in Athens in 2004.
It was obviously unforgettable. You don’t even know how big it is, how important it is. However, for me, every day is competition day. I remember the qualification being really, really emotional. And we beat China – look how far China is right now – we beat China to qualify, and when we got to Greece we felt important to be part of the best eight teams in the world. Although we placed seventh, I would say it was a great experience. Four of those kids I had coached since they were 12. They still contact me, we’re still in touch, they got married, they’ve got kids, and every time I go back to Italy they always try to organize a really nice night out to catch up and talk about our lives.
How did you get involved with Great Britain’s team?
After two years as technical support for all the coaches in Italy, I was missing the coaching side of the sport. I wanted to coach again. At that point, I thought it’d be nice to see something outside of Italy. I remember I was on the internet and I found out the Great Britain squad was looking for coaches. And one of the jobs was only for five weeks. It was to take the junior team to the European Championships. I didn’t get a lot of money – I did it for the passion. It was a new experience. I wanted to challenge myself. So I went there for five weeks. I lived in a barracks. That wasn’t the best part of my experience. Although they gave me a really nice room, it was still a barracks.
I did a good job, I guess, and all of the British judges told me that the girls looked better, they had a little different style, they looked much sharper, the routine was good and all of those little things. So my boss, happy about my job, asked me to stay for an extra year. The first question I asked her was, ‘Do I have to stay in the barracks?’ She laughed said, ‘Obviously not. We’ll give you a proper salary and you can rent a house or a flat.’ I didn’t want to leave Italy, it wasn’t on my mind, but I liked the experience abroad. So I thought, OK, one year. It’s not going to be the rest of my life. One year goes really fast. Guess what? I stayed in England for seven and a half years. Because after that year my boss told me, ‘I can’t go ahead without you. I want you to stay until the Olympic Games in London in 2012.’ I wasn’t stupid enough to stay no, right? It’s not my own country, but it’s in the host country.
As soon as I applied for one year and then the next four until 2012, we had only Sundays off. We were training every single day. There were no bank holidays. No Easter. No nothing. We just worked incredibly hard for five years. I think it was only Christmas that they had off. It was really tough. I remember I was really tired because I changed everything. I changed my language, I changed the choreography, I changed the style. I learned so much from (Great Britain’s National Performance Director Biz Price). I will be thankful for the rest of my life for what I learned in the synchro world.
What was your second Olympics experience like, this time with the host country?
If my first Olympics was unforgettable, 2012 was constant goosebumps. We felt so supported from UK Sport, from all of the media. I will never forget the fans. One day we went to a practice before the competition and we just moved from one pool to the other pool. The competition hadn’t even started and we were just practicing. We came out of the water and all of a sudden all of the fans … I want to cry – it was beautiful. All of the fans were cheering us. I remember I was walking in the Village between the competitions and people were recognizing me, saying, ‘I saw you on telly! Are you the synchro coach? Can we take a picture?’ You felt so important. We did a good job as well. They really looked good. And that was our goal.
How did you get involved with USA Synchro?
(USA Synchro CEO) Myriam Glez used to work for Great Britain. We connected in England and when she heard about (budget) cuts in England, she contacted me and said that USA Synchro had a job vacancy. Before that I had gone to the U.S. as a consultant coach with the 13-15 National Team. I liked the environment, I liked the challenge, I liked the girls and I decided to move (and become Glez’s assistant coach).
We worked together until the World Championships in Kazan. After Kazan, she probably realized that I had the knowledge and the expertise to be a head coach. She was doing two jobs at the same time. I was offered the head coaching position and I said yes – I was ready for the responsibility of that after so many years. She asked me to coach the duet and to take them to the Olympic Games. I remember she asked me to do the choreography for the duet and obviously I said yes in no time because I was really hungry to show my style for Team USA. So we selected the Olympic duet, we started to make the choreography and the journey started.
I’m still the head coach, but I’m focusing more on the duet because it’s something I really like – not that I don’t like the team, but I’m an expert on the duet and I take care of the solo as well. We are so excited to bring the team to the next World Championships. And my goal with the duet is always to maintain the same rank or even improve one position.
What are your goals for Team USA at the 2020 Olympics?
We expect to compete and not just qualify for the Olympics. To improve our ranking in the world. We came out last year and improved three positions in only one year. But it’s not going to be easy to improve three positions every time. The closer you get toward the podium levels, the harder it is. I want to improve the score year by year and get closer to the country ahead of us. The girls will get more experience, and that’s our goal. Between Worlds this year and the Junior World Championships next year we want to have a strong team to build toward the Olympic Games in Tokyo. We’re going to get feedback from judges all over the world and from other coaches. So, based on that, we’re going to improve our choreography, which obviously won’t be the same. We want to start this journey from the World Championships this year until the qualification for Tokyo 2020.
You helped set up the Down Synchro Swimming World Championship. Tell me about that experience.
This is my cherry on the cake. It’s so pure. It’s great oxygen for my heart. It was really tough for me at first because it was a new environment, but then I understood quickly that those athletes need to have the same opportunities as everybody else. So we are organizing these world championships with the same intensity as a world championship for other athletes. It’s been extremely rewarding. We have more countries join every year. I remember at the first world championship in Italy in 2012 we had only three countries, and for the next world championship in 2014 we added two more. For the 2018 championships in Canada we’ll have two more. These athletes love to be in the water and they love to listen to their music underwater, so it’s a perfect combination for them to enjoy a great environment and to interact with other athletes.
I’m still the technical director of DSISO (Down Syndrome International Swimming Organisation), but it’s quite difficult to be the head coach of the U.S. synchro team and the technical director. However, I still work with DSISO – I went to Canada to check out the venue for the world championships in 2018. My boss, Myriam, is really proud that I’m doing this job, and she allows me to go have meetings with the board and to overlook the venues for competitions. It’s a wonderful environment. It’s professional with really positive people full of energy. Everybody is volunteering, but they really put all the effort that they can to be a strong, professional organization. I love it.
You’ve coached in several different countries. What do you think of the U.S.?
It’s almost my second anniversary in the U.S. It’s not my first country. When I left Italy I went to England, I worked for Scotland, I went to Spain for a little bit. I’m quite open-minded and my personality is really adaptable. You know, I can live anywhere. So I respect the culture and I’m open to changes. I like changes. Every change is a new challenge.
You have everything in the U.S. So if you need something, I’m pretty sure if you’re looking for it you will find it. But there are too many meetings. I’m the kind of person who wants to be on the pool deck and work. I don’t want to talk too much. And a meeting to decide the next meeting? But it’s OK. I get it.
What do you like to do in your free time?
I like to go to the cinema – I prefer the cinema to the television, although with Netflix and whatever you have, you have lots of movies on the telly. And, obviously, I listen to any kind of music because every time I listen to a particular song I always have my phone set on Shazam and I’m going to buy the song on iTunes. I’m crazy about that. I’m still old-fashioned – when I learn to do something on the computer I stick with that.
What is it about synchronized swimming that drives you? How could you explain the sport to someone who doesn’t know a lot about it?
It’s almost five sports put together. They need to swim. They need to do acrobatic movements. They need to be flexible like a ballet dancer and have great posture. And they need to be strong – they need to have explosive power. They need to have a lot of skills. That’s why I think synchronized swimming is amazing. And then you consider that they do this with a nose clip, so they can’t breathe properly. They do it upside down and without goggles. They need to be synchronized with the music and with the other seven teammates. So, it’s kind of tough. I respect the synchronized swimming athletes because they’re working really hard in a few different areas, and all of them are as important as the other.