Belgrade 2024: How Renaud Barral ‘refused to conform or submit to stereotypes’

Renaud Barral made his major event debut at Roma 2022 – European Aquatics

By Nick Hope
Aquatics correspondent

Each athlete lining up at the 2024 European Aquatics Championships in Belgrade will have their own unique and varied tale, but few – if any – could describe a journey quite like that of ex-masters competitor turned history-making Belgian artistic swimmer Renaud Barral.

“I started synchro a very long time ago, it was the year 2000,” he tells European Aquatics with a smile, before rolling his eyes and adding; “most of the guys weren’t born yet!”

At 36 you might assume he is a veteran of elite tournaments, with vastly more experience than his younger international opponents, but this year’s Europeans in Serbia will see the swimmer compete in just his fifth major event.

His debut at this level came back at Roma 2022, when he finished a creditable fourth and fifth alongside mixed duet partner Lisa Ingenito.

Since then, he has contested the 2023 European Games and two editions of the World Championships, becoming his nation’s first professional male solo swimmer along the way.

“There’s a lot of pride when I go out and compete for Belgium,” he says.

“Maybe people see the last three-year journey, but it’s also the 21 years before; it’s the dedication to the sport I’ve been practicing for a long time and that’s why I’m always very proud to represent my country.”

Renaud Barral and Lisa Ingenito compete for Belgium at Roma 2022 – European Aquatics

REFUSING TO CONFORM OF SUBMIT TO STEREOTYPES

Barral took up the sport at the age of 12 after refusing to accept that only his sister, who had struck up an interest, should be allowed to compete because of her gender.

While his passion for the sport grew, the barriers and in some cases, the abuse he faced for taking part in it as a male, did also.

“It was not an easy road overall because okay in your club you’re quite accepted and you are not having people being cruel or calling names,” he recalls. “But you step into competition and it goes quite heavy.

“I was quite innocent at the time and I was just happy to perform, so whatever people would call me I’d carry on, but as I look at it now as an adult, I think it was quite violent and aggressive.”

SEEKING ROLE MODELS AND BECOMING AN INSPIRATION

Unsurprisingly, given the era of the sport, Barral lacked male role models as a youngster, although there was at least one – now considered an American icon – he was able to locate.

“When I was young and doing synchro (former name for artistic swimming) I had almost zero role models,” he tells European Aquatics.

“Okay, I had Bill (May), but it was the early 2000’s so the internet was not the internet of today and it had maybe five pics of Bill and a couple of articles on Google!”

At the age of 20 he took up masters swimming and Barral would secure several successes, most notably at the Budapest 2017 World Masters Championships where he and Nirina Lepage claimed gold in the 25–29-year-old category.

This came two years after mixed duet events had entered the elite World Championships programme for the first time and over time the Belgian began to realise, he wanted more.

A NEW PROFESSIONAL APPROACH

In 2021, at the age of 33, Barral changed his routine and adopted a more professional approach to the sport, believing he had one last shot at achieving his childhood dream.

“I think it was a way to keep a promise I made to myself as a kid, to at least try to get it there,” he says.

“It’s not easier when you’re 33 to go back to intense training and I would say some of the younger guys are a bit luckier but I think it’s a great journey where I’ve learned a lot about myself.

“I didn’t know if it would be possible, but now I checked Europeans, three times soon, Worlds twice and because I was missing role models, I now hope I can inspire young kids.

Barral stresses; “It’s important to me; not only boys and girls but I think there is a big spectrum at the moment and there are a lot of kids suffering who can’t potentially have access to sport.

“So, for me it’s important to try and inspire all of them on this.”

European Aquatics

BELGRADE 2024 ‘CLOSEST THING’ TO AN OLYMPICS

The swimmer will line-up in the men’s solo events at Belgrade 2024 and while he admits placing on the podium will be challenging – in what is undoubtedly the strongest-ever European Championship men’s line-up the sport has ever seen – he believes success can take many forms.

“Of course, I hope to perform well, not take a base mark and then climb up the ranking or who knows, a medal, but it will be hard,” he tells European Aquatics. “But it’s great, to see.

“While the Olympics is a dream, only a few of us can potentially go at the moment (with places available for male athletes in the Team events come Paris 2024).

“It’s probably not one I will be able to fulfil as I’m starting to get a little old and the mixed duet is not added to LA 2028 and Brisbane (2032 Olympic Games) is even further away, but I’m having fun and that’s the most important thing.”

Artistic swimming events will run from 10 to 14 June in Belgrade during the 2024 European Aquatics Championships in Serbia.

World Aquatics