Karen Alvarez has spent most of her life around swimming pools. She swam for Kenmore West and the Tonawanda Aquettes, and was an all-American in synchronized swimming at the University of Arizona. She made the swift transition to coaching and has been coaching the Aquettes for years.
Her daughter, Anita, was alongside from the moment she was born. When Anita was a toddler, people would ask her if she was going to be a swimmer.
“She always said no,” Karen recalled.
That lasted until Anita was around 6 and began swimming in a feeder program at the Tonawanda Aquatic and Fitness Center. It soon became apparent that Anita was a natural, that she possessed the poise, physique, presence and persistence required to be a synchro champ.
“We knew she was very gifted when she was little,” Karen said last week. “There was just something special about her. People used to tell us, ‘She’ll go to the Olympics some day.’ ”
Now it was Mom’s turn to say no. Oh, it was flattering, and every parent’s dream, but the Olympics? It’s natural for a parent to imagine great things for a gifted child, but she was one among thousands. What were the odds?
But as it turned out, Anita was that rare athlete, a prodigy with the talent and sheer determination to become one of the best in the world. In March, she beat the odds. She qualified for the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, where she will compete for the United States in the synchro duet.
“When we qualified, it didn’t all hit me right away,” Anita said last Wednesday after a workout. “It was like another meet. We improved. We were happy with our swim and our scores and everything.
“But then I started getting all the Facebooks and texts and calls, everyone from home and everywhere around the country with USA Synchro. Then I started realizing, ‘Whoa, this just happened. We’re going!’ ”
Yes, she and her duet partner, Mariya Koroleva, are going to Brazil. Maybe it took so long to sink in because it happened so fast. Two and a half years ago, she was a high school junior at Kenmore West. Then she got an invitation to join the U.S. national team in California.
Anita was on the junior national team when she moved away. But the following May, she had been elevated to the senior national squad and chosen as one of four competitors to practice a duet routine for the Olympics – with two making the eventual cut.
It wasn’t easy. At the time, she was 17 and the youngest member of the national team. She was away from her mom and her father, David. Her older brother, Tom, was at Allegheny College.
Weary and discouraged, Anita called home a few times soon after leaving Western New York to say she didn’t know if she wanted to do it anymore.
“The coach was very tough,” Karen said. “She was in with 12 girls from California and herself. They were living at home or could go home on the weekends and she was the only one completely thrown out there. We couldn’t afford to fly her home.
“So the first couple of months it was challenging. It was pretty intense. It took her awhile to feel like she belonged there. The California teams are the cream of the crop. They’ve always been the top of the nation.”
Alvarez wasn’t used to the grueling six-hour practice schedule. She had to do her school work online, talking with her instructors via Skype.
“It was really hard at first, leaving home and everything,” said Alvarez, now 19. “I mean, all the way across the country to California. It was really different. I didn’t want to leave school and home, but it was so fast a decision.
“I had to go with my gut, my heart really. But I got used to it, and I’m happy.”
In the end, the competitor in her prevailed. Alvarez found an ideal partner in Koroleva, who had competed for the U.S. in duet in the London Games, where the U.S. finished in 11th place. They complemented each other well, and they’ll be heading to Rio in August.
In the meantime, it’s been a whirlwind of competition, workouts and public appearances. Alvarez and Koroleva won gold in the China Open last month. Two weeks ago, they appeared at a Team USA event in Times Square in New York to mark 100 days out from the Games.
Last Thursday, as part of Synchro de Mayo, a monthlong celebration of the sport, they performed their routine at the Aquatic Center and signed autographs. Two days later, they returned to the Big Apple for an Olympic promotion with U.S. swimmers.
Alvarez said it’s still hard to see herself as an Olympian. But when she signs autographs for kids, she sees a younger version of herself, looking up at her own heroes.
“Yeah,” she said. “So I remember that when I’m signing stuff. I remember how they feel and how it felt to me. It might not seem like a big deal when I’m writing my name, but I know it is to them.”
Maybe some day, it’ll be the signature of an Olympic medal winner. That’s unlikely in Rio, however. Alvarez admitted it would be a surprise if she and Koroleva won a gold medal. In fact, any medal would be a major upset.
These are hard times for U.S. synchronized swimming, which won a silver or gold medal in every Olympic event from 1984, the year it became a medal sport, until 1996.
But in 2000, the USA slipped to fifth in the team competition. They came back to win bronze in 2004, but haven’t won a medal in either team or duet since. Four years ago in London, the Americans didn’t even make the eight-team field. They didn’t qualify for Rio in team, either.
The judges tend to go on reputation in synchro, as in other subjective sports like gymnastics and figure skating. The Russians have won the gold medal in team and duet in four straight Olympics.
So Alvarez and Koroleva aren’t the stars of the U.S. team, they ARE the team. And while they’ve added difficulty to their routine and continued to improve, they know how tough it is to sway the judges at the Games. The duet was 11th in London, so it would be a major achievement if they got up as high as fifth in Rio.
“Some people don’t realize that in one year, there’s not going to be a huge change,” Alvarez said. “In our sport, with the judging, it takes a long time to get even one place ahead. If you want to jump up one place, you have to be way better than that one person in front of you. It’s crazy.
“But I think our country is starting over. The last couple of years, especially this year, we started to really move forward.”
The Americans set the synchro standard. The world caught up and left them in its wake. The U.S. has a long-term plan through 2024. They’re already gathering candidates for the 2020 national team in the hope of climbing back atop the Olympic podium.
In the meantime, Alvarez – who intends to continue through the 2020 Olympics – represents the present and future for American synchro, and the burden of going it alone with Koroleva in Brazil.
“We don’t really think of it that way,” Alvarez said. “People say ‘It’s just you two. There’s no team. You’are the ones representing the U.S.’ Then we realize, ‘Yeah, you’re right.’ But we’re so focused on everything we’re doing, we try not to let that stuff bother us too much.”
It’s not the medals that drive her, or the fame. There’s certainly not much public acclaim, or financial reward, in her sport. It’s the striving for perfection, the pure Olympic ideal, that makes it all worthwhile.
“I guess it’s heart, that heart that keeps us going,” she said. “I look back to my younger self, and I look up to those top athletes in our country. All the sacrifices you make along the way, just knowing it’s going to be worth it, and it’s starting to pay off.
“So I wouldn’t want to back out now.”