01/27/2015 06:34 EST | Updated 03/29/2015 05:59 EDT

Simoneau, Thomas have sights set on Pan American Games synchro gold

TORONTO - A free routine in synchronized swimming is four minutes of lung-busting athleticism combined with balletic grace — like running a mile with a smile on your face.

"And while holding your breath," Jacqueline Simoneau said.

Simoneau and Karine Thomas comprise Canada's synchronized duet team, the favourite to win gold at this summer's Pan American Games in Toronto, and a duo to watch at the Rio Olympics in 2016.

They'll tell you that behind the smiles, sequins and slicked-back hair is a whole lot of pain and suffering.

"We often can't move right after (a four-minute free routine)," Thomas said. "It's one of those where our bodies are in so much pain. We had a competition in Germany, the German Open, and for some reason that day the free duet was just very, very hard, and we finished the routine, we got through it, we both looked at each other and I don't think we could move."

"We stayed on the spot in the middle of the pool for about a minute," Simoneau added.

Smiling through the pain is a requirement. There's no collapsing on the track like a runner might do.

"Although I did feel like falling down there a little bit," Thomas said with a laugh.

"Drown a little bit," joked Simoneau.

"How I like to explain it is synchronized swimming is a mix of a whole bunch of different sports," Simoneau added. "We train diving, gymnastics, speed swimming, strength and conditioning, weightlifting, all into one sport ... and in the pool, upside down, while holding your breath. We try and make it look as easy as possible, we put a smile on our face, but it's harder than it looks."

The 26-year-old Thomas, from Gatineau, Que., is the lone holdover from the Canadian team that finished fourth at the 2012 London Olympics. She was paired with Simoneau, an 18-year-old from Montreal and a silver medallist in solo competition at last summer's world junior championships, after an extensive series of physical tests.

"It's whoever really comes out on top in physical testing," Thomas said. "They definitely got the best of both worlds with us, and we weren't actually the first pair that they tried out, we found each other through a process of many different pairings. But we're the pair that stuck, and we're very happy to be representing Canada now."

Thomas and Simoneau were in Toronto on Tuesday to help Synchro Canada announce a multi-year partnership with Shiseido. They were then scheduled to board an evening flight for Rio to train at the synchro venue for the 2016 Games, and get accustomed to the bustling city.

A busy day. But then again, busy days are the norm.

A short practice day for Thomas and Simoneau starts at 6:45 a.m. and ends between 2 and 3:30 p.m. A long practice day can stretch as late as 5:30. Most of those hours are spent in the pool.

Synchronized swimmers can hold their breath for up to three minutes. It's not unheard of for swimmers to faint during training.

"I've seen it before," Thomas said. "We're all very competitive, and sometimes we push ourselves a little too hard, and the thing about lack of oxygen is once you realize you're starting to fade, it's too late. It's pretty interesting to see how far a body can go without oxygen."

It's a talent, the two swimmers said, that is developed over years, and with the help of hypoxia training — the swimmers will do laps at top speed without taking a breath, or swim laps under water.

"Those are really, really hard but beneficial to us," Thomas said. "And we do a lot of different things ... a lot of on-land work, we jump, we do chin-ups, we do a lot of strength and conditioning. But for the breath it comes with the routines, we just train the routines so much, that's what really builds our endurance to be able to hold our breath and move 100 miles an hour at the same time."

Canada has narrowly missed the medal podium at the last three Olympics. The last Canadian medal was a bronze in the team event at the 2000 Sydney Games.

Synchro Canada is hoping an innovative approach may put the team on the podium in Rio. Thomas said, as an example, the swimmers are monitored constantly through a series of underwater cameras at their training base in Montreal.

"We're really trying to push how much we can incorporate science into our sport, and then also there's all the creativity that we tried to bring into our routine, so trying to come up with stuff that nobody has seen before," Thomas said. "So we really want to push the boundaries of how much we can do in synchronized swimming."

Thomas and Simoneau both played numerous sports as kids. Thomas eventually took up synchro after watching the 2000 Olympic competition on TV.

She was already well-acquainted with the water as the daughter of two national team water polo players — her dad Ian would have played in the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, had Canada not boycotted. In addition, Thomas's grandmother was a synchronized swimmer.

Simoneau was at a diving practice when she spotted the synchro swimmers at the other end of the pool and was intrigued.

For a while she did both. But when the time came to pick one, she drew up a list of pros and cons in her diary.

"I chose synchro because it's just such a mix of different sports that I absolutely love, and I get to incorporate a little bit of diving into synchro, and it just makes me happy," she said.

Canada is a powerhouse in Pan Am Games synchro, and swept the gold medals in team and duet four years ago in Guadalajara, Mexico. Canada will go into the Pan Ams as the No. 1-ranked country again, with their stiffest competition likely to come from the U.S., Mexico and Brazil.