Ona Carbonell: "If we achieve gender equality in sports, it will help society as a whole"

Carbonell Ballestero of Spain competes in the Synchronised Swimming Free Combination preliminary round at the 15th FINA World Championships in 2013 (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
Carbonell Ballestero of Spain competes in the Synchronised Swimming Free Combination preliminary round at the 15th FINA World Championships in 2013 (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)

After plunging back into the pool a month and a half after giving birth, Ona Carbonell is once again dreaming about the Olympics. Today, on International Women’s Day, the Spanish artistic swimmer reflects on the importance of equality.

If a podium existed that took into account every Swimming World Championship in history, Ona Carbonell would be in the bronze medal spot. Her 23 medals rank after only the USA’s Michael Phelps (33) and Ryan Lochte (27). Carbonell has won more World Championship medals than any other woman, while also winning a pair of Olympic medals at London 2012 – silver in the women’s duet and bronze in the team event.

But perhaps all of these accomplishments lag behind something that really defines Ona Carbonell: Being a mother.

Carbonell originally chose not to compete at Tokyo 2020 so she could start a family. Her son, Kai, was born on 12 August 2020, meaning that in normal circumstances she would have missed out on the Games. But recent developments have been anything but normal and – following the postponement of the Olympics – Carbonell will once again represent Spain on the greatest sporting stage of them all.

Just a month and a half after giving birth, she was back in the pool. Now Carbonell is preparing herself for the Olympic qualifiers in May.

A mother, the most successful woman in World Championship history and a Tokyo 2020 hopeful, Carbonell’s list of achievements is nothing short of spectacular. But if you also add that she is a winner of Spain's version of the cooking show MasterChef, a designer and an art lover, you realise it isn’t easy to define someone who has made so many of her dreams into reality.

As a woman, what does it mean to you to be the third most successful World Championship medal winner, after Phelps and Lochte?

It's important to me because of all the effort. And it gives you confidence to know that everything you did was right and all the effort was worth it. It’s beautiful, in particular for women’s sport and artistic swimming, because ranking just below those two machines [Phelps and Lochte] - who are really popular - helps our sport and helps women.

Today is International Women's Day. How important is that to you?

It means a lot because I am a woman. Society is doing great work in that regard and we’ve obviously seen results, but I still think we have a long way to go [in society] and in sports. Now I am experiencing what it's like to combine being a mother and an athlete, but it is still taboo and it’s very difficult. For me, [today] is important and I think that everything women and society in general do will help us to achieve equality one day.

Artistic swimming and rhythmic gymnastics are rare as women-only Olympic sports, but have you ever suffered inequality while competing?

In my sport, no. It’s the opposite in fact, because I think men should be able to compete as well and we still have work to do so that men can compete in the same disciplines. I believe men are discriminated against in my sport.

And have you felt inequality in sport in general?

Yes, more generally in sport there’s a lot to be done. From salaries to the attention you get from the media, facilities, technical personnel… there’s a long way to go until we achieve equality. But on the other hand, we have to be thankful. I’m in favour of complaining, but also of saying thank you. And I thank the institutions and journalists, because fortunately now there are many more children who call Lydia Valentin [Spanish weightlifter] and Mireia Belmonte [Spanish Olympic swimming champion] their idols. Years ago that would have been unbelievable. We are moving forward, but there’s still a lot to be done.

The best medal is to have your own family

How can the power of sports help other women in other fields?

I think sport reflects society. It’s something that everybody experiences and feels in the same way, no matter if you are a spectator, an athlete or a coach. It is something beautiful and the values intrinsic to sport are essential in life. I hope my son does whatever he wants to, but sport is essential because it brings values to your entire life. Having said that, if we try to achieve equality between men and women in the world of sports, it would help society in general.

And what can the athletes do?

We female athletes can just keep on winning medals because that helps a lot. But besides that, we have to keep fighting for equality in every sense of the word. For example, in my case, one of the most beautiful things about returning [to sport] after becoming a mother is that it shows that there is a big problem and that starting a family is still very difficult in many professions. In sport, you can’t imagine everything you need to do with your body, and suddenly you lose grants and a lot of other things. It’s something that needs to be made visible, that we need to talk about and continue working hard on.

A mother and an elite athlete

I trained until lockdown (mid-March 2020). At that time I was just in the water, but above all, I was helping Mayu [Fujiki, her coach]. I continued training with the team while pregnant, until I was four or five months pregnant. But then we entered lockdown and during that time we only had two Zoom calls a day with the team in order to help them out.

And after giving birth, how long was it until you returned to the swimming pool?

Kai was born on 2 August and quarantine ended on 12 September. That’s the moment I began training again. I started in the pool - I couldn’t run or do crunches so as not to hurt my abdomen or pelvic floor - so I began working with a personal trainer that Mayu arranged for me. Luckily, Mayu helped me a lot. For example, she adapted everything so everything took place close to where I live, as I was breastfeeding and it was quite hard.

What is the most difficult part of being a mother and an elite athlete?

It’s that everything happens so fast after giving birth. After little more than a month, I was leaving Kai for four hours a day. I was training, pumping milk for Kai… plus, as a mother it’s quite sad to leave him at home. But on the other hand, I know it’s a good example for him - and that’s positive.

As well as this, your body changes after giving birth. You need to lose weight and, since I breastfeed, you also need to be careful about injury caused by prolactin and hormones. It’s difficult until your body returns to normal.

Also, I don’t sleep, I don’t rest [she explained with a laugh]. Before giving birth, I just relaxed after training sessions, watching movies, icing my legs. Now, I arrive home and I spend three hours with seven kilos in my arms, breastfeeding, getting woken up a lot during the night. That’s complicated as well.

How has your body changed since your comeback?

Mayu has helped me a lot with this. I believe female athletes who have given birth and want to return to sport need the help of their coach - as I did. Otherwise, it’s very hard. First of all, from a social point of view, because it seems like when you have a child you’re never going to be who you were or you’ll never achieve the results you did before… Mayu and I had a lot of meetings when I was pregnant and when I returned to the pool for the first time she told me to stay calm. So, for me, it wasn’t a shock. At first, I felt technically good but physically horrible. I had gained nine kilos but I wanted to be in competition mode. I had to lose weight, and that’s not easy.

What message you would send for International Women’s Day?

It’s not a message, but I would say to all my friends from different sports that if they want to become a mother, they should. Doing so is the most beautiful thing in the world. Although it’s scary because there is no help available and there isn’t enough social dialogue about it, I think the best medal to have is your family - more than any other medal you can win in your career. Sport will evolve and at some point women will be able to become mothers and return to the sports field with their goals intact.

Ona Carbonell of Spain competes in the Solo Free preliminary round at the Gwangju 2019 FINA World Championships (Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)
Ona Carbonell of Spain competes in the Solo Free preliminary round at the Gwangju 2019 FINA World Championships (Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)
2019 Getty Images

A different Ona Carbonell, but one who’s ready for Tokyo

In what ways has motherhood changed you?

I think the most important things in life have changed. Now it is all about my family, my son and my husband, whereas before it was win, win, win. Obviously, I still want to train, improve and reach my goals, but I think it’s more relative now. Priorities change.

It seemed like you wouldn't be able to go to Tokyo but now, after the postponement, you will. What are you hoping for from these Games?

Now I'm just thinking about the qualifiers and earning a spot. But I have a special relationship with Japan. I’ve been there 12 times and Mayu [her Japanese coach] has known me since I was almost a baby. When I began competing for the national team I was 14 years old, and she coached me along with Anna Tarrés.

So Tokyo is like coming full circle. Suddenly, I had Kai and Kai is a Japanese name that Mayu told me about. And, after everything, I have the opportunity to compete at these Games. I think everything will be magical, more so because of the pandemic. I just want to enjoy the Games and feel every unique moment, because I can say this will be my last Games - that’s for sure. So, I’ll try to enjoy every moment.

When you stand up you are much stronger than before you fell

A mind without limits 

You once said: "We are more afraid of failure than the hope of trying." Have you ever been afraid of failing?

I think there’s not much to learn when it comes to taking risks, as we’re obviously afraid of failing. But it's only by losing that you can someday win. We are taught that losing is bad so it’s better not to be defeated. But this isn’t true. The most important thing is trying, then you can win or lose. Sport has taught me to risk more and fight for my goals, no matter how unreachable they seem to be. Only by reaching for them will you realise that you are actually capable of achieving them. But, of course, I’ve been scared of lots of things and lost many things. 

Can you give us an example?

I prepared for the Olympics for four years, but the coach didn’t take me, so I needed to prepare for four more years. Eventually, I won two medals but it took eight years to reach my first Olympics and win my first Olympic medals. It was really tough and at one point, I felt like a huge failure and I almost fell into depression. But I kept holding on and setting different goals that were almost unreachable.

So I think it’s important to learn that failure is good. Nobody is born winning, not even Rafa Nadal, who is the best. I am a dreamer and I always dream big, and I think that by dreaming big I have achieved a lot - obviously coupled with hard work, a positive mindset and hope. But you have to have challenging goals. 

So do you learn more from a defeat than a win?

At first, I found that difficult to accept. When I didn’t go to Beijing 2008, it was like I was in mourning… outrage, injustice and sadness. But then experience taught me that, yes, you do learn more from failures and it is important to fall and then get up again. When you stand up you are much stronger than before you fell down.

Carbonell and Fuentes get silver in Synchronized Swimming | London 2012
06:36

Another silver for Spain after Beijing 2008.

Have you ever set limits for yourself when training or competing?

Not many. I realised that your mind and body can do things you can’t even imagine. Our coaches try to push us to the limits - and they do - but you can always go beyond them. Sometimes I’ve been in the shower and grabbed at my own hands to try to put shampoo on - that’s how tired I’ve been. But I work on my mindset a lot, I visualise a lot of goals and I know everything that I have achieved is due to that. If you work on your mindset, limits don’t exist. 

Have you worked with psychologists?

Although you would think sport is physical, it is 80 to 90 per cent about your mind. Taking that into account, you have to accept and understand that if you have a big goal like being the best at something, you need any help you can get - a nutritionist, a trainer and also a psychologist. You need a mental coach because sometimes your mind stops working. I’ve always worked on the mental side of sport and I’m not ashamed to say it. I think it’s something positive to admit that and to understand our strengths and weaknesses, or the things we need to improve.

A multi-talented star with a single legacy 

Other than artistic swimming, you also design swimsuits, give speeches and you won MasterChef Spain. Where does all that creativity come from?

I always say that I’m very bad at a lot of things. I almost failed PE at school. I mean, I’m not a good athlete, I just found the perfect sport for me. I love art and am involved in a sport with a very strong artistic element because, to be honest, I’m really bad at other sports. And that’s what hooked me. I think I have a fire inside of me and I’m always keen to discover new worlds. For me, life is about constantly learning, so even if I spend a lot of hours in the pool, I've always found time for other things like writing a book, taking part in a TV cooking show, studying design and designing swimsuits.

If an athlete doesn't respect their rival, it is very difficult for them to win

All these things have made you an example to other people. When did you first realise that?

Following the World Championship in [Republic of] Korea, I took some time out for myself. When I returned, I asked Mayu what she wanted from me that year. She told me that she obviously wanted me to achieve results, but she also wanted me to become an example outside of the water - to be the first to arrive at the pool, the last to leave and the least likely to complain. Since I’ve become more well known, I’m trying to develop that side of myself, particularly on social media, so that others can understand that if you want to become a great athlete you also need to be polite, responsible and do more than just lift yourself up on one leg. For me, that’s what being an example is.

What legacy do you want to leave?

Not only results, but also values. I’d like what I’ve done to mean something to other swimmers, so that they understand that their minds and feelings are important. I hope that, in a sense, I can be a role model to them. And I think people still don’t see this - if an athlete doesn’t respect their rival, it is very difficult for them to win.

  • The 2019 World Championships Épée Women and Sabre Men where Nathalie Moellhausen gold.
    Fencing

    Nathalie Moellhausen: Mind over matter

  • Millie Bright of England looks on during the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup France group D match against Japan (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
    Football

    Millie Bright: The rising star within English football

  • Samantha Mewis of the USA and teammate Abby Dahlkemper celebrate following their sides victory in the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup France Final match against The Netherlands (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
    Football

    Abby Dahlkemper: Team USA's ever-evolving defensive dynamo