Before getting into the pool, Anita Alvarez and Mariya Koroleva squeeze each other’s hands, whispering words of encouragement to one another. The Team USA synchronized swimmers have had the tradition for years and said it stems from a bond that few other Olympic athletes can share.
“(Koroleva) and I have to understand each other as people, and we’ve became really great friends, almost like sisters,” Alvarez said. “We have to have a really good bond — not just in the water — but out of the water also. It’s so much time together that I really don’t think other athletes on other teams really experience or bond like we do.”
The synchronized swimmers and duet pair said they’re preparing to give their all to win a medal as they represent the United States this week at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. This will be the second Olympic Games for 26-year-old Koroleva, who has been on the U.S. national team since 2007, and the first for 19-year-old Alvarez, who has been swimming for nearly 15 years.
“It’s a really cool experience to see all the athletes from all over the world here together,” Alvarez said. “I know Mariya and I are excited to have our time to compete here.”
But before advancing to the Olympics together, the duo already has years of international success highlighting their experience and talent in the water. They first paired together in 2015, placing sixth overall at the French Open, and at the 2016 German Open and French Open, they walked away with two bronze medals at each competition.
“On the team, and especially with Mariya and I, we’re always on the same mental pattern, and we have to know that every second we’re on the same page, and we’re not thinking about anything else,” Alvarez said. “It takes a long, long time to develop that relationship with someone, and to train and swim and compete together with this connection, I think it’s really advantageous.”
Along with the rest of the synchronized swimming team, Alvarez and Koroleva train eight to nine hours a day for six days a week. Daily training regimens include ballet, pilates, weights and pool sessions. The women practice their routines together on the ground in order for the synchronization to be flawless, and after the long days, they still find time to be together.
“It takes a lot time to bond with the team and really your partner so things work perfectly, not just in the pool, but out of the pool too,” said. “When you have seven other people, that’s a whole team, so you really have to get to know everyone. The teams that do well have been swimming together for a long time.”
Movie nights, team dinners and outings are frequent on their off-days, and Koroleva said that with the sacrifices each member has had to make to be on the team, it’s easy for the women to understand each other.
“We all know everything about each other and how each one of us feels, and when we travel and compete, we do everything together, and it all helps,” Koroleva said. “It’s hard to spend this much together, but the relationship I have with Anita and the other women here is very strong, more than just a connection with ‘another athlete.’”
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With the “never ending days,” however, Alvarez added that the constant exposure to one another could be a lot to handle.
“Sometimes we get sick of each other when we spend so much time together. It’s nice to get a break from each other sometimes when you’re traveling together 24/7,” Alvarez said. “This is the ultimate team sport, and your team actually will not function if there’s a weird relationship anywhere, you have to always be working on that.”
After a long day, Koroleva said she and Alvarez know when to go their own ways and prepare to go back in the pool the next day.
“You can imagine having so many girls in the pool, there’s bound to be conflict,” Koroleva said. “Sometimes if we’re not getting along in the pool, yeah, I might not swim next to you or I might kick you in the pool on purpose, but we always work it out. It can be really hard working with the other girls and a partner sometimes, but you have to rely on one another and trust each, and I think it makes it that much better that you get to experience it with your best friends.”
With Olympic competition fast approaching, U.S. National Team Coach Lolli Montico said she’s proud of the team and “excited” to see how Alvarez and Koroleva compete as a duet.
“They’re looking really good, and I know they’re prepared to show the world what they’re capable of,” Montico said, “There’s been a lot of really great practices, and there’s a huge bond with this team. I know they’re ready for the Olympic competition.”
The Sunday synchronized swimming competition is a preliminary round, with final rounds slated for Monday and Tuesday.
Casey Smith is a Ball State University student and writer for BSU at the Games, a group of 50 journalism students traveling from Muncie, Indiana, to Rio for the Olympic Games. Follow them at bsuatthegames.com, @bsuatthegames on Twitter and Instagram, and BSU at the Games on Facebook.