What is gelling? How is it done?

Gelling is the practice of applying a gelatin mixture onto the athlete’s head to hold the hair in place during routine competitions. It washes out and doesn’t harm the hair or head — it’s just a little messy.  Here are the steps:

What you need:

- Strong black elastics

- Small clear or black elastics

- Hair coloured bobby pins

- Hair pins

- Hair coloured hairnet

- Knox gelatin (available in the baking section of most grocery stores)

- Deep, round, microwavable container

- Fork or whisk

- 1 ½-inch paint brush (or hair-dyeing brush)

- Old towel

- Kettle for boiling water

Prepare the hair:

1) Dampen the athlete’s hair and brush to remove tangles (always a fun time; try soothing music.)

2) Using a comb and brush, smooth and firmly pull damp hair back into a ponytail. Ponytail should be located just above centre on the back of the head.

3) Depending on hair thickness, separate the ponytail into two to four sections and then braid each section and secure ends with small clear elastics.

4) Begin to slowly wrap braids in a circle to form a bun. Use elastics and pins as needed to secure the bun. 

5) Place the hairnet over the bun, then twist and layer the hairnet again over the bun. Secure the hairnet with a few pins.

Time to gel!:

1) Cover the swimmer’s shoulders with an old towel.

2) Prepare the first thick coat by emptying 2 to 4 packets of Knox into round container and approximately ¼ to ½ cup bowling water.

3) Using fork or whisk, gently mix boiled water and gelatin until all gelatin is dissolved and mixture has thickened. If any clumps of undissolved gelatine remains, pop the gel into the microwave for 15 second intervals until the clumps are completely dissolved. If a microwave is unavailable, pick or strain out the clumps with a fork or strainer.

4) Using the paint brush, carefully (it’s HOT) begin applying the first coat of gelatin to the swimmer’s head, starting just past the hairline. Apply towards the bun in smooth even strokes. If the gelatine drips onto the swimmer's skin, wipe it off with a warm damp cloth. Continue to apply until the entire head and bun is covered.

5) Rinse paint brush with hot tap water until clean.

6) While the first coat sets, prepare the second ‘glossy’ coat. 

7) Clean out any leftover gelatin from the bowl (tip: leftover gelatin sets after a minute or two and should be easy to peel from bowl).

8) Empty 2 to 3 packets of Knox into round container and add approximately 2/3 cup boiling water.

9) Using fork or whisk, gently mix boiled water and gelatin until all gelatin is dissolved and mixture has thickened.

10) Using the same technique, begin applying the second coat of gelatine to the swimmer’s head, directly overtop of the previous coat of gel. Continue to apply until the entire head and bun is covered.

Note: the gelatin mixture won’t be as thick as the first coat, as this is meant to provide a glossy finish to the head and bun.

Breathe a sigh of relief. You did it!

Washing it out:

Athletes learn their own tricks to washing out gel. One popular method is using loads of conditioner and endless brushing in the shower. Some other methods are rinsing hair with pineapple juice or white vinegar. The juicy acids help break down the gelatin. It might take a few washes to remove all the gelatine.

Preparing gelatin ahead of time:

Some athletes choose to prep gel pucks before a competition. Prepared gelatin can be left covered and refrigerated for a few days. To use, simply place prepared gel pucks in microwave and reheat. See below for more helpful tips.