“Before EPFL, my life revolved around synchronized swimming”

Face of Alice Ponsar in the water. DR

Face of Alice Ponsar in the water. DR

Alice Ponsar began studying for a Bachelor’s in communication systems at EPFL three years ago. Now, her challenge is to strike a balance between her studies and life as an elite synchronized swimmer.

She may be just 20 years old, but Ponsar has already traveled the world and tasted the thrill of high-level competition. After taking part in the Mediterranean Synchronized Swimming Cup in 2018 (Seville) and 2019 (Geneva), she headed to Slovakia for the 2019 FINA Youth World Championships. In 2022, she competed in the elite category at the FINA World Championships in Budapest and at the World Junior Championships in Quebec City. And in 2023, she traveled to Poland for the European Games.

It all began when Ponsar was just seven years old. She and her elder sister were on vacation, watching with admiration and envy as an unknown girl pulled off a series of impressive dives. “I asked her where she’d learned to dive,” she explains. “She said she was a synchronized swimmer, and that’s how my sister and I got started. It didn’t come naturally to begin with. I was average ability-wise. But I got better with time.”

Alice Ponsar in duo Junior World Championships in Quebec. DR

While her sister eventually gave up swimming to focus on university studies, Ponsar – now a member of the Swiss national team – continued training at Morges-Natation swimming club. She moved up through the ranks at Swiss Aquatics, which sets a high bar for athletic ability both in the pool and on dry land. Along with around 30 other swimmers, she attended training camps where the coaches would identify future national squad members – athletes who would compete in the European and World Championships.

“The teams consist of swimmers from clubs across Switzerland,” says Ponsar. “Whereas some countries keep the same team together for years in a row, Switzerland changes its squad every year. Sometimes there’ll be a new coach, while other times there’ll be a few new swimmers. For us, adapting to these changes poses an additional challenge.”

Classes in the morning, training in the afternoon

During her time at high school, Ponsar had no trouble fitting her competitive commitments around her studies. That’s because she attended Gymnase Auguste Piccard, a school in Lausanne that makes special arrangements for the 250 or so high-level artists and athletes on its roll. “I managed to keep up with my classes while fitting in around 20 hours of training a week,” she explains. “The pace was hectic and I enjoyed it immensely. I obviously had more homework to do, but I never really struggled at that level.” After graduating from high school with a specialization in math and physics, Ponsar naturally wanted to continue her studies at university, even though her life revolved around her sport.

Alice Ponsar performs a figure in the water. DR

“Synchronized swimming is first and foremost a team discipline, although I do compete in some solo events,” says Ponsar. “There’s a real bond among team members. I also enjoy the artistic side of the sport. You get to express yourself in the water in a way that no other discipline can match – to combine physical strength and artistic grace from your fingertips to your toes. Of course, that means constantly pushing yourself beyond your limits.” Studying at EPFL would demand effort on an altogether different scale.

Team synchronized swimming competition. © l.i.J. Cieslikowscy

“It took me three years – five whole semesters – to complete my first year”

“I always enjoyed math at school, but I was less fond of physics,” says Ponsar. “That’s why I was initially unsure about enrolling at EPFL. In the end, I decided that just because I didn’t like physics in high school, didn’t mean I wouldn’t like it at EPFL. But today I can confirm it isn’t my favorite class.”

Juggling the competing demands of elite sports and a Bachelor’s program is no easy task. Ponsar had to dash from the pool to the exam room and back again, and even skip the odd semester to focus on her swimming. “I didn’t even achieve a grade in the first semester because I missed some of the subjects,” she explains. “I completed the ones I’d skipped the following year, then did half of the second semester the year after that.” The same pattern continued, with Ponsar taking entire semesters off so she could attend competitions.

Alice Ponsar in solo competition Junior World Championships in Quebec. DR

Now, Ponsar has decided to take a more pragmatic approach after winning a gold medal at the most recent Swiss championships. “As of the start of the next school year, I plan to stop swimming competitively and focus on my studies instead,” she says. “Switzerland isn’t one of the top countries when it comes to synchronized swimming. The US and Chinese teams are incredibly strong. I’m proud of what I’ve achieved in the sport but I’ve come to realize that I can’t take it any further. This year, I’ve started coaching junior swimmers at my club.”

Team gold medal. DR
  • Swiss Elite Championships – April 2023: Free Solo (bronze); Technical Solo (4th place); Free Team (gold); Technical Group (gold)
  • Swiss Youth – April 2023: Free Solo (gold); Technical Solo (silver)
  • Swiss Junior Championships – April 2023: Free Solo (gold); Technical Solo (silver); Technical Group (gold)
  • Swiss Elite Championships – April 2024: Acrobatic (gold)

Author: Sandy Evangelista

Source: Computer and Communication Sciences | IC

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