RIO DE JANEIRO – Kenmore’s Anita Alvarez didn’t arrive in Brazil until Thursday. The problem wasn’t the color of the water in the pools, but the sheer lack of them. So Alvarez, the pride of the Tonawanda Aquettes, spent the last two weeks training for her first Olympics in Puerto Rico.
Alvarez and her Olympic duet partner, Mariya Koroleva, spent eight hours a day polishing their routine. Natalie Vega, a Puerto Rican native who lived for a time in Western New York and swam with the Aquettes, invited her American friends to her home for an Opening Ceremonies party on Aug. 5.
They came dressed for the occasion, wearing the official outfits that had been provided to the USA athletes to march in the Ceremonies.
“Yeah, we were all dressed up,” Alvarez said Friday in a synchro press session. “We were watching and eating. Then the USA came on and everybody in the room started cheering.”
Vega’s family rewound the broadcast. They told Alvarez and Koroleva to step outside and march back into the house as if they were part of the American team following Michael Phelps into the stadium in Rio.
“We have a video of it,” Alvarez said. “It’s really funny. It was a little sad that we weren’t there and didn’t get to experience all of it. But it was also exciting because it made me feel at home. I’ve been watching the Ceremonies at home all my life.”
It began to seem real at that moment, too. Alvarez was really going to the Olympics. The nerves and the emotions started kicking in. Koroleva, who had competed in London, did her best to prepare Anita for the real thing.
“I experienced the Pan-American Games last summer, which is like a mini-Olympics,” she said. “I had a little idea about what it was going to be, but I knew it was going to be 10 times bigger – and it is.
“It was exciting, just walking around the village and seeing all the Rio 2016 signs and the athletes. Every time you turn your head, there’s another amazing athlete walking by you. It’s been an amazing experience. I get goose bumps thinking about it.”
Soon after arriving, she and Koroleva checked out the Maria Lenk Aquatics Centre, where they will compete in the synchro duet preliminaries on Sunday.
They looked at the dive pool, which had turned green on Tuesday and ignited a flurry of reaction on social media.
“We saw the dive pool was green,” Alvarez said. “We didn’t know ours was turning green, too. It’s on its way. Well, it’s ... it’s not blue, but it’s not green. It’s kind of in the middle.”
But what if she and Koroleva are in the middle of their duet, underwater, and the water is so green they can barely see each other?
“For our routines, it’s important to see each other,” Alvarez said. “When we’re spinning and turning around, it’s really important to spot the walls and we’re supposed to stay close to each other as we swim.
“But we’ve trained these routines so much we could do them with our eyes closed. We could do them in our sleep. We have all the muscle memory that we need. We both know we’re ready physically.”
The question is how prepared they’ll be mentally and emotionally. As Koroleva said, you don’t know what to expect at the Games until you’ve experienced it. “People can tell you,” Koroleva said, “but it’s a whole different animal.”
They have the added burden of representing the U.S. at a time when synchronized swim is in decline in America. They’re the only competitors here. The U.S., which won gold or silver in every Games from 1984-1996, hasn’t medaled since 2004. They haven’t qualified for the two events in the last two Games.
It’s not often you hear an Olympian admit that there’s no chance of winning a medal. But synchro judges have preconceived notions of routines, based on reputation, and it’s difficult to sway them. The Russians have won the gold medal in team and duet in four straight Olympics.
“I wouldn’t say we’re going for a medal,” Koroleva said, “but we definitely have ranking goals. There’s a couple of countries right ahead of us that we’d like to pass. Since we started competing in January, we’ve been inching closer and closer to the competitors right ahead of us.
“So that’s what we’re hoping to do, to overtake one or two pairs. And for us, that would be a great accomplishment.”
Koroleva and her duet partner finished 11th in London. She and Alvarez were seventh in Olympic qualifying. Moving up to fifth in Rio – in the same pool where they qualified for the Olympics early this year – would represent a significant step forward for the American squad.
For Alvarez, simply being here is a dream. She grew up watching the Olympics on TV and followed in the footsteps of her mother, Karen, a synchro All-American at Arizona who coaches the Aquettes and will be in Rio, along with Anita’s father, brother and grandmother.
Alvarez said she’s been touched by the support from people back in Western New York, by every imaginable method of communication. “It’s been crazy and overwhelming,” she said, “but I’m excited to go out there and represent Western New York and Buffalo.”
“We’ve competed in this pool before. But it looks totally different. The set-up is different, volunteers everywhere, cameras, other athletes. It’s huge, and every time I walk into the pool I get butterflies in my stomach. But it’s cool, and I’m excited to see what it feels like when we walk out on the big competition day on Sunday.”