The obvious question was how it felt.
What was it like when Kenmore native Anita Alvarez fainted in the pool near the end of her artistic swimming routine at the Olympic qualifier in Barcelona?
“I honestly thought I was asleep,” Alvarez said by phone from California. “I started hearing people saying, ‘It’s going to be OK.’ I thought, ‘Stop telling me that! I’m trying to sleep.’ Then I realized that no, I was still in the pool.”
Alvarez laughed at the memory. But it was no laughing matter when she lost consciousness late in her freestyle duet routine with U.S. teammate Lindi Schroeder earlier this month. Her coach, Andrea Fuentes, knew something was wrong. She dove into the pool, fully clothed, and swam to help her.
Fuentes and Schroeder dragged Alvarez to the pool deck, where she regained consciousness. She was able to swim again that night in the technical routine, then gave way to alternate Ruby Remati, who swam well enough on Sunday for the U.S. duet to qualify for the Tokyo Games.
You couldn’t blame Alvarez if she needed a nap. The free duet on Saturday afternoon was her fourth event in three days, including an emotionally wrenching team performance the night before, in which the Americans narrowly failed to qualify for the Olympics.
The rigorous competition schedule, combined with the emotional toll of the eight-woman team failing to qualify, left Alvarez, the team’s leader and eldest competitor, in a state of near-exhaustion.
“Yeah, definitely,” she said. “I think a lot of things mixed together led to that. Late night, little hours of sleep, then up at 5:30 the next morning to compete in the duet event. The free duet is the hardest routine, if you ask pretty much any athlete.
“The way the schedule was set up, I was the only athlete competing in both events that day and again the next morning. Besides the physical and emotional aspect, we’re in this tight, closed pool that’s very hot. The chlorine is very strong.”
Alvarez has fainted in the pool before, though never in an actual competition. Her mother Karen, coach of the Tonawanda Aquettes, said her daughter tends to go all-out and sometimes pushes herself the limits of exhaustion.
“It’s happened before in training,” Anita said. “You have long training days and they’re very intense. We’re doing some extra endurance training where I push my body to the max, which is understandable.
“This was different. I actually didn’t feel it until the very end. I felt more tired than usual, but I didn’t think I was going to pass out. On that last arm, I’m like 45 degrees horizontal when I’m supposed to be vertical. I remember doing it and thinking I was vertical.
“Then the feeling kept spinning, like I was in a hamster wheel,” she said. “I don’t remember anything until I got to the wall. They had already carried to me to the wall and I kind of woke up out of it and realized my coach was in the pool, and that was that.”
Fortunately, it didn’t happen earlier in her routine. Alvarez and Schroeder qualified for the Olympics in duet. It’s the second time for Anita. She and Mariya Koroleva competed in Rio in 2016 and finished ninth.
But for the second time in a row, the duet will be the lone U.S. entry in artistic swimming, formerly known as synchronized swimming. The Americans won gold or silver in every Olympic event from 1984, when the sport debuted, through 1996. But the U.S. hasn’t qualified for the team event since 2008, or won any medal in artistic swimming since 2004.
Last weekend, an improved eight-woman U.S. team finished fourth in Barcelona and missed qualifying for Tokyo by two-tenths of a point. In 2016, they didn’t even reach the qualifying round for Rio.
“It was definitely a hard reality to face,” Alvarez said. “Going into competition, we always focus on our performance and the journey along the way. But once you get there, it’s a whole other feeling and story, especially being so close.
“We were point-two away from qualifying. You think back to all the what-ifs. But in the end, we know we had a really strong performance. We were happy with the swims we had. We were happy with the support we had back in the U.S., and in the synchro community around the world. There were so many countries that were rooting for us and who talked to us and said we should have qualified.”
Alvarez, 24, is the elder stateswoman of the U.S. team. She moved to California when she was 16 to join the national team. She was the kid then. Now the younger swimmers are looking to her for leadership and perspective.
Tears were shed after they narrowly missed qualifying for the Olympics. But it was Alvarez’s job to remind her teammates how far the national program has come in recent years.
“I think everyone can see it,” she said. “Everyone knows. I’ve shared with them how much we’ve grown as an organization over the years.
“Our goal from the beginning wasn’t just to qualify and have a specific placement. It was to inspire other teams, and to inspire the next generation in the sport in the U.S. So I think we definitely did that, and we brought attention back to USA artistic swimming.”
Now Alvarez turns her attention to the Olympics, and to the artistic swimming duet competition from Aug. 2-4 at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre. After all she’s endured — a year’s postponement due to the pandemic, the fainting episode, the team’s failure to qualify — she will appreciate this Olympic experience more than ever.
“Oh, yeah,” she said. “It’s going to be a different Olympics for sure. It’s going to be strange. But I think everyone who is there will appreciate it in a whole new way. I’ll definitely cherish it.
“I did the first one also. But this will be a whole new way. It won’t be just for Lindy and me in the duet, but it will be for the rest of the team. Knowing they’re behind me will make it even more special and rewarding.”
For the second Olympics, however, Alvarez is unlikely to be at the Opening Ceremonies. She arrived late in 2016 because of the lack of pool facilities. She trained in Puerto Rico with a former teammate from the Aquettes. They held an informal ceremony for her and Koroleva, even a march into the house.
This time, there will be tight restrictions on how much time athletes can spend in Japan before and after they compete. Since Alvarez won’t compete until more than a week after the July 23 Opening Ceremonies, she doubts she’ll be able to take part.
“I’m not counting on any Ceremonies,” Alvarez said. “If it happens, I’ll be surprised. I guess I’ll have to go one more time and experience it at the next one.”
Artistic swimmers tend to retire early in the U.S. Alvarez has no plans to do so any time soon. Assuming she’s healthy and can qualify, she’s looking forward to a third Olympics in Paris in 2024.
“Exactly,” she said. “The next one is only three years away, so it’s hard to say no to that one at this point.”
Oh, and if she’s really ambitious, there’s an Olympics coming to Los Angeles in 2028. She would be 31 years old.
“I mean, you can’t go wrong with an Olympics in your home country!” Alvarez said. “We’ll see. One year and one quad at a time, I guess. But that could be a dream. Yes, that could be a dream.”
Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.