On any given winter morning at Campolindo High School in Moraga, steam rises toward the mountains from the Soda Aquatic Center pool. Anita Alvarez, a U.S. Olympian in synchronized swimming, shivers as she dips her toe in the pool before diving in to start another day of training.
Alvarez competed in the 2016 Rio Olympics for Team USA at 19 years old. She swam in the duet event with Mariya Koroleva, who officially retired after the competition. Alvarez continues to swim with the Senior National Team, which is the highest level a synchronized swimmer can reach in the U.S. Although only 22, she rates as an elder among her teenaged teammates.
In the workout room, a countdown to Tokyo 2020 is on the whiteboard. It’s a daily reminder of the goal to send a team to the Olympics for the first time since 2008. Alvarez is training with Ruby Remati, 16, for the Olympic duet competition.
Events in synchronized swimming differ primarily by how many people perform. At the Olympics, the team event features eight people compared to the duet routine, where pairs compete. Synchro, as it’s often called, is a judged event. Scores are based on difficulty, artistry and technical skills.
“You have to be such a well-rounded athlete,” Alvarez said. “You have to have the strength, the power but also the grace and the beauty and elegance and the flexibility, so it’s like a mix of swimming, diving, gymnastics, dance.”
Synchro, recently renamed “artistic swimming,” first appeared in the Olympics in 1984. Americans Tracie Ruiz and Candy Costie won the first gold medal in the duet, but Americans haven’t medaled since 2004.
Each time the U.S. fails to medal, the U.S. Olympic Committee has reduced the sport’s funding. Russia, which has captured gold for the team and duet events in every Olympics since 2000, has an advantage over the U.S. because it’s a government-funded sport.
Senior National Team member Claire Barton, said many Americans don’t understand the sport.
“If people do know what [synchro] is, they think it’s some sort of whimsical thing you see on TV rather than a real sport,” said Barton, who swam with Alvarez on the national team in 2015 before going to college.
More than a decade before the 2016 Olympics, Alvarez was a five-year-old who was learning synchronized swimming at the Tonawanda Aquettes in Buffalo, New York. Her mom, Karen Alvarez, got her start as a synchronized swimmer with the same club and now coaches the team.
“I’ve always loved that relationship because she understands the sport and knows what it takes, so she’s there to push me,” Alvarez said. “But she’s also my mom so … every time she watches our team swim she always thinks it’s great.”
Now, Alvarez only visits her childhood home about twice a year. In 2013, at 16, she had been asked to be part of the Senior National Team Duet Squad, which required her to move out to California for training. She had about a month to decide.
“I was like, ‘No way I’m not about to leave. I’m not going to miss junior prom, senior prom, all these different things,’” Alvarez said.
Alvarez was proving to be a talented competitive swimmer, and she looked forward to her school’s graduation ceremony. But she decided to make the move away from her family and friends. She knew it was the only way to achieve her life-long Olympic dream.
“It was a really big decision,” her mother said. “She was leaving a lot behind her, but it’s something she really wanted. It was kind of scary because she was moving out and living with people we didn’t know and training. Intense training. So it was kind of scary but then it turned out to be wonderful.”
At 19, Alvarez achieved her dream. She and her duet partner Koroleva, who was 26, were one of the last teams to perform their technical routine at the Olympics as Team USA’s only synchronized swimmers.
“I didn’t know if I wanted to cry, if I wanted to get sick, if I wanted to pass out, if I wanted to scream of happiness,” Alvarez said.
When they placed eighth in the technical routine and ninth overall, their coaches screamed with excitement, and everyone cried.
“It’s not even the medals,” Koroleva said. “It’s just seeing that your work produced something that … you actually accomplished what you set out to.”
“It was the best moment with these two athletes,” Lolli Montico, who coached the duo in Rio, said. “They’ve been coached nonstop for one year, six days a week, 8 to 10 hours a day. I mean we never looked up. We were just head down and working hard.”
Even though the pair didn’t medal in 2016, Alvarez and Koroleva had moved up three places from the 2012 Olympics, which Koroleva also competed in with a different duet partner.
“It’s really hard to move up one ranking because it’s a judged sport and people go into the competition already knowing where everyone’s going to rank,” Alvarez said. “It was huge that we moved up so much … We were really happy with the results and how we performed. I couldn’t ask for anything more than that.”
To make it to the 2020 Olympics, Alvarez and her teammates continue to train at Campolindo eight to ten hours a day, six days a week.
After a full day in the water, Alvarez meets with the team’s nutritionist, sports psychologist and physical therapist. She works at Dick’s Sporting Goods one day a week and coaches at the Walnut Creek Aquanuts, a synchronized swimming club, three days a week. Then, she’s off to make a healthy dinner and complete her homework for her online community college classes. Alvarez also needs sufficient sleep, so she can wake up before 7 a.m. practice the next day.
“It’s really about who’s going to have the grit to persevere through everything because you’re giving up a lot of time,” Koroleva said.
As much as synchro requires discipline and strength, the glittery costumes, heavy makeup, animated facial expressions, long legs and skinny waists play an important part in the sport as well.
“For synchronized swimming, it’s really important to have a beautiful body, and Anita is basically perfect for the sport,” Montico, her former coach, said. “She’s tall, skinny but strong skinny, and the lengths of the legs are beautiful.”
“Whatever she does in the water looks amazing, and she’s willing to get better, to learn, to work hard, because she understood how hard other countries at the higher level work,” Montico added.
While Koroleva said some people look ahead to the 2028 Olympics when the U.S. is guaranteed a synchro team as the host country, she is excited for 2020.
“I actually think [the Senior National Team has] a real chance,” Koroleva said. “There’s so much more momentum and positivity.”
With the Olympic qualifier about five months away, Alvarez said, “Every minute, every second of every day, it’s on our minds.”