RIO DE JANEIRO – Anita Alvarez and Mariya Koroleva had realistic ambitions coming into the Olympics. They wanted to improve their world ranking and put on a show that would augur better times for a struggling U.S. synchronized swimming program.
The U.S. duet – the nation’s lone synchro representatives at the Rio Games – achieved that modest goal here, finishing in ninth place in the duet free finals Tuesday at the Maria Lenk Aquatic Centre.
Alvarez and Koroleva were 11th in last year’s World Championships, so taking ninth is seen as a significant leap forward in a subjective sport where judges defer to reputation and rarely give scores that stray too far from a team’s established rank.
They did fail in one respect. The U.S. duet was in eighth place entering the final free routine, one spot ahead of France. Beating the French would have been a big achievement. But the French had a stronger routine in the final. Alvarez and Koroleva performed well, but didn’t execute quite well enough to hold off the French pair.
“We’re really excited with how we’ve done this whole week,” said Alvarez, a Kenmore native and product of the Tonawanada Aquettes, where her mother, Karen, is a coach. “We improved so much throughout the year and since last summer.
“We’ve closed the gap with the countries who were right above us,” she said, “which has been our goal. We passed a few and we’ve closed the gap with the ones right in front of us.”
The U.S. won silver or gold in synchro in every Olympic event from 1984, the year it became a medal sport, until 1996. But the national program has stumbled of late. The Americans didn’t qualify a team for Rio. So they’re still worlds behind the Russians, who won a fourth straight duet gold and have won three straight Olympic team titles.
Russians Natalia Ishchenko and Svetlana Romashina won easily. China finished second and Japan took bronze. The Russians had the highest technical difficulty in the final field and also finished with the top marks in execution.
Alvarez and Koroleva, who was born in Russia but grew up in California, had high marks in difficulty. While the execution wasn’t the best, they have made a concerted effort over the past year to put together routines that rival the top national duets for difficulty.
“In the last couple of months, after every competition we tried to increase our difficulty,” said Koroleva, who was competing in her second Olympics. “That’s, like, having more time underwater, having more times with two legs up and two arms up, because that makes it more difficult.
“But with adding difficulty,” she explained, “you also have to execute it well, so you have to be high, really sharp and synchronized. That’s what we’ve been trying to do the last couple of months and I think it’s worked out really well. Our score has gone up in difficulty, which makes our overall score that much higher.”
The objective now is to keep improving and lift American synchro out of its decline and back toward its historic heights. Alvarez and Koroleva carried a large burden as the only U.S. Olympians. They want to see that change soon.
“Yeah, we’re trying to build the whole team back up for next year worlds and this whole squad up to the 2020 Games,” Alvarez said. “We have a bunch of young girls who are ready to commit and stay together for awhile. With the way things went in these games, we can keep our spot and move up from here.”
Alvarez is 19, still young by Olympic standards. She’d like to come back for another Games. Maybe this time, she can march in the Opening Ceremonies. She and Koroleva were in Puerto Rico during the opening, because there weren’t enough pools in Rio for practice.
“We missed the Opening Ceremonies,” Alvarez said, “but we felt really confident going into this competition, having those extra few days to train by ourselves in Puerto Rico, and I think it showed. It paid off. We’re really happy with that, and excited to kind of relax, see our families, see some other events and go to the Closing Ceremonies.”
Koroleva said she and Anita spent most of their time in the village dining hall and working out in the pool. She said they haven’t had time to do any socializing or go to other sporting events. They’ll have time for that now.
“I don’t even know what other events are going on,” Alvarez said with a laugh.