Karen Alvarez wasn’t in Spain when it happened. She was watching from home in Buffalo, at 4 a.m. on Saturday morning, when she realized something had gone wrong in her daughter Anita’s artistic swimming routine during Olympic qualification.
“Unfortunately, I’ve seen it happen to her before,” Alvarez said by phone on Wednesday. “Never in competition, though. I knew right away. On their last element, I could tell something was up.
“It was hard to watch, definitely.”
Anita and her partner, Lindi Schroeder, were near the end of their free duet routine in Barcelona when Alvarez lost consciousness in the pool.
Andrea Fuentes, the U.S. head coach, also noticed Anita’s lack of execution at the end of the routine and knew what was amiss. Fuentes dove into the pool, fully clothed, and swam to her aid.
Fuentes and Schroeder carried Anita to the pool deck, where she regained consciousness and was attended by medical personnel for about five minutes before being wheeled away in a chair for further evaluation.
“She fainted,” said Karen Alvarez, the coach of the Tonawanda Aquettes and a former college all-American in what used to be known as synchronized swimming. “They’re still trying to track down what happened,” she said. “It’s happened a few times. But it seems to be when she doesn’t have enough recovery or enough sleep. She’s one that always goes all-out. Even in practice, she goes all-out.”
Karen said it had been a long, emotional week for Anita, who is the “old lady” and leader of the U.S. team at 24. The duet was her fourth event in three days, including a disappointing fourth place for the eight-woman team, which failed by one spot to qualify for the Tokyo Games.
She basically exhausted herself.
“Yeah,” her mother said. “A lot of the people there were competing only in the duet event. They had just come off the (Friday) double team swim. She was back in a few hours later for the solo swim. It was a late night before they got back to the hotel. Then the duet event was early in the morning. So she didn’t have a whole lot of recovery.
“You had all that emotion as well, because they didn’t qualify (in team). All that hype that has been building up for a couple of years now.”
Not qualifying the team was a crushing, if not altogether surprising, outcome. The U.S., once dominant in the sport, has fallen off precipitously over the last decade or so. The Americans haven’t sent a team to the eight-woman event to an Olympics since 2008.
In Rio, Alvarez and Mariya Koroleva competed in duet as the only American representatives. They finished ninth.
But the U.S. program has been on the rise under Fuentes, a Spanish synchro legend who took over in 2019. The Americans finished second in a team event in France in 2020, before the pandemic postponed the Olympics for a year. The extra time was seen as a boon for the U.S.
Fuentes has looked to Alvarez — who moved to California to join the U.S. team when she was 16 — as a leader for a young squad. So it had to be difficult to bounce back after the team had failed to qualify for Japan.
“It was an emotional letdown and then they had to bounce back pretty quick to qualify (in duet),” Karen Alvarez said. “I’m sure she was a little stressed, because a lot of the ones competing had only been training duet, where her emphasis was the team.
“I know she was a little nervous about that, because they haven’t trained the duet as much as some of these other countries that are just doing the duet. She was confident, but in the back of your head you always worry a little bit.”
Alvarez came back to compete in the duet tech routine later Saturday. But on Sunday, alternate Ruby Remati replaced her in the free routine. The U.S. duet finished fifth to qualify for Tokyo.
Anita, who hasn’t yet returned a phone call, posted this on Instagram after the duet qualified: “Definition of teamwork makes the dream work.”
She also praised Remati, who will accompany her and Schroeder to Japan as an alternate next month: “You deserve this moment and I thank you so much for your bravery and willingness to rise to the occasion.”
Karen said Anita is doing fine. “They got back to the States on Tuesday,” she said. “So she’s just pretty much crashed. She was pretty exhausted. Now she’s doing a million things trying to get caught up on life.
“She’s going to have some tests done, just to rule things out, to make sure everything is OK. She’s gone through some tests before and they came back with nothing.”
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.