The second instalment of the Sport Australia Hall of Fame’s exclusive series, The Untold Story features 2021 Tier 2 Scholarship Holder, Ethan Calleja.
Ethan was born in Subiaco, Western Australia, in 1999 and became the first male to represent Australia in the sport of artistic swimming when he competed at the FINA World Series China Open, and the FINA World Championships in the Mixed Duet Free routine in 2019.
Prior to artistic swimming, Ethan enjoyed a very successful swimming career where he represented WA at five School Sport Australia Swimming Championships. He was appointed team captain in 2016 and 2017, made the finals at two national championships and broke 25 records during his 13-year swimming career; many of which remain in tact to this day.
This is Ethan’s Untold Story…
My name is Ethan Calleja, and I was the first male to represent Australia in Artistic Swimming and have been able to travel the country and the world competing in events that are new to Australian Sport and Aquatic sports in general. I haven’t always been an Artistic Swimmer (formally known as Synchronised Swimming) – I started when I was 18. I competed as a Breaststroke swimmer for 13 years specialising in 50 and 100Br before making the leap in artistic swimming. I guess you can say I have been a water baby since birth, I basically haven’t known a life that swimming hasn’t been a large part of.
I grew up with two brothers who like myself, loved participating in any sport or activity we could get ourselves involved in. I think my love of competition was bred from a young age with my brothers and I always wrestling and mucking around, but it was during the 2004 Olympics that I was glued to the screen and my real love for swimming and sport began.
My older brother began swimming before me and I began doing squad training with him, which resulted in some success at my first couple of meets which snowballed from there and led me to more and more training. Soon after, I attended several national competitions across the country with the state team and was fortunate to work my way into a leadership position with them. This gave me so much a joy and showed me there was more to sport than just winning.
Although I was ranked fourth in the country across multiple years, it wasn’t enough to progress to that next level and reach the international stage, so I made the decision to close the door on my Olympic dream and retire from swimming.
During the last 6 months of my swimming career, I had become involved in Artistic Swimming, first in a coaching capacity where I taught swimmers how to swim in a way that produced fast movements with minimal effect on their bodies. I didn’t expect that short period would lead to a career change, yet, after just 6 weeks into retirement I embarked on a career in Artistic swimming.
I remember vividly the shock, and confusion as to why I was even asked and wanted to undertake this journey and join the team. My soon-to-be coach then explained to me that no male had represented Australia in the sport before, and that she wanted me to be the first to do so. She told me that a spot in the performance program had recently become available and that she would like me to fill it, with the hope that I would qualify for World Championships the next year. I couldn’t believe it; I was being given another opportunity to represent Australia and just four days later I was back in the pool!
I trained hard for the next 12-months before my first competition, and after just 18-months I was ranked eleventh in the world, was representing Australia at an international competition in China and had qualified for the 2019 FINA World Championships in South Korea.
Being able to represent my country and meet other incredible athletes from all over the world was one of the most incredible moments of my life. I got to meet the heroes of my new sport and other men who were competing at the top and, although I felt like I’m bit of an imposter, I was assured by those I was competing against that I deserved to be there.
Artistic swimming is a heavily female dominated sport, and the inclusion of men has been long and gruelling 30-year process that extends beyond my career and to men all around the world. The sport is slowly growing and looks very different now compared to when men first began swimming. We are competing at every opportunity we get to not only make changes for our careers, but to be a positive influence on all boys and girls that come after us.
Being the first to achieve anything in any sport has its challenges. Not only do the pathway programs often not include me, but the consistent fight for opportunities is also a hurdle. I’ve had to fight to keep my place and consistently train, pay for my national uniforms, and adapt plans to try and make sure I can still achieve my goals. BUT every single challenge has been worth it in the end. The joy of competing against other guys who have dedicated their lives to something in the same ways I have is a feeling like no other. The artistic swimming community is like a family, and we take every chance we have, to lift each other up as this only helps others rise-up and influence more and more people. This is something I find so unique in our sport and it identifies the absolute passion of every athlete competing at that level.
Balancing high-level sport, further study, and work to pay for it all has been one of the most exhausting yet most rewarding experiences in my life and I have often had to remind myself how much I have achieved in a short space of time and to be keep being kind to myself.
It’s been for and a half years since I began artistic swimming and in that time I’ve completed a Bachelor of Commerce, I’ve worked multiple jobs at a time, one of which led me into a fulltime role, I began my Masters in Sport Management and proposed to my fiancée, plus dealt with the volatile nature of COVID-19 , all while keeping high standards in competition and training to uphold my National titles and continue what has been described as a ‘successful’ career in artistic swimming.
Although my career has objectively been successful, I want to mention that I could not have achieved anything I have alone. I’ve had amazing emotional and financial support from countless people including my family, coaches, friends, teachers, and Sport Australia Hall of Fame and being supported by those who believe in me gives me the motivation to keep making the most of the opportunity I’ve been given to do what I do. More importantly, if I do my job properly, it gives me the chance to make positive change and hopefully influence those that will come after me. I am forever grateful for the position I am, and I believe that everything that comes from it is just a benefit, and if I can make an impact then I am doing my job right. I had many people plant seeds in my life, and I can only hope I am doing the same for the athletes of the future.
For as long as I can remember, sport has been my whole life and I don’t think it will ever disappear, even if that means moving into less physically demanding sport when I am old and grey!
My sporting endeavours have led me into my career path and I’m currently studying Sport Management, which will provide me with a pathway to hopefully fulfill the dreams of making an impact on sport and hopefully supporting athletes to follow their own dreams.
While I am still getting in the water and competing at a national level, 2022 still has a lot in store for me, notably getting married! My now wife, has supported me incredibly through my synchro endeavours and we’re both looking forward to the next year and beyond.