Artistic swimming duo come out of retirement to fly the SA flag at the Tokyo Games

Clarissa Johnston and Laura Strugnell will be the first artistic swimmers to represent the country at Olympics in almost three decades

18 July 2021 - 00:00 By Declan Gibbon and David Isaacson
Laura Strugnell and Clarissa Johnston have come out of retirement to represent SA at the Tokyo Olympics.
Laura Strugnell and Clarissa Johnston have come out of retirement to represent SA at the Tokyo Olympics.
Image: Lauge Sorensen photography

Clarissa Johnston, 30, and Laura Strugnell, 29, are SA's 2021 artistic swimming duet national champions. They have come out of retirement to represent SA at the Olympics for the first time since the country competed in the event at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. They will be judged against the world's best teams, from Australia, Russia and the US.

We asked them:

How and where did you start in the discipline of artistic swimming?

Clarissa Johnston (CJ): I started when my family moved to Durban and artistic swimming was offered at Durban Girls' College.

Laura Strugnell (LS): My sisters both did artistic swimming at school and when I was old
enough I started, in Benoni.

What are inversion chairs, and how do you use them for land training?

LS: It's a yoga tool, but we use it on land. You can basically do a headstand resting on your shoulders so we can practise our moves with our legs upside down without pressure on our neck.

How has lockdown affected training and coaching?

CJ: Lockdown was really tough on swimmers because pools were closed for so long. We had to be creative and do other kinds of training, like ballet and stretching.

LS: It's also been a blessing in disguise because we've been able to work with an international coach, Reem Abdalazem. She's in Spain and we communicated on Zoom — we put our phones on the side of the pool. She's a consultant coach and choreographed our routines.

Did you use CrossFit?

CJ: We didn't do CrossFit, but we did train at a CrossFit gym and used the equipment.

What support and funds have you received?

CJ: We've had incredible support. We set up our own BackaBuddy link to contribute to various costs we had to cover like pool hire, flights back and forth to Cape Town, other coaching costs, Biokinetics and Pilates. Most of our training was paid for by the December bonus that I was paid, but that wasn't enough for months of the journey to the Olympics. The figure we managed to raise on our BackaBuddy page was R250,000. It covered all our costs from last year up to now.

LS: We calculated that it costs us R10,000 a week on training.

What are you most excited to experience in Tokyo?

CJ: I think just being in the Olympic village is what we're most excited about, and flying
the flag.

How do you complement each other?

LS: We're very different. We have different personalities, which complement each other.
I don't think of the "what ifs", I just think "let's do this now" and Clarissa is quite cautious.
She'll sit and think about all the other stuff that I haven't thought about.

Laura Strugnell, left, and Clarissa Johnston.
Laura Strugnell, left, and Clarissa Johnston.
Image: Lauge Sorensen photography

What have been the highs and lows of this journey?

CJ: Illness was a low point. Laura got meningitis last year that put her in hospital for three weeks. And then with lockdown, with all the obstacles that brings, trying to get permission to use pools, can we travel to Joburg or can't we … Our biggest high was winning the South African championships to qualify for the Olympics.

LS: We had little wins along the way — like support and love from the community. There's a coffee shop up the road, Croft & Co in Parkview, where the owner has been giving us free coffee every day, free food, and got lots of his clients to help support us through our BackaBuddy page.

Is your discipline a sport or an art?

CJ: It's both. It's a sport in terms of the strength and fitness that's required, but it's also an art in terms of the way you interpret music, move your body, express your face.

How is artistic swimming judged?

LS: It's judged in three categories. The first one is artistic impressions, like your facial expressions, the theme of the routine, how you present yourself. The second one is difficulty — how hard your routine is. And the third is how well you execute the routine. 

After having been postponed due to Covid-19, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics will take place from July 23 to August 8 2021. Visit


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