(WIVB)-Early last winter, at the start of the season, USA synchronized swimming head coach Andrea Fuentes asked her team what they thought their chances were of qualifying for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
No one answered.
“Our chances are super low,” said Fuentes, a Spanish synchro legend who had taken over the foundering U.S. program a year earlier. “Maybe 1 percent.”
Fuentes was simply being realistic. The Americans, once the dominant power in what is now called “artistic swimming,” had become an also-ran in the sport. In the eight-member team competition, the USA hasn’t even qualified for the Games since 2008.
But things are looking up under Fuentes, the most decorated Olympic female athlete in Spanish history. In early March, the Americans put on a stunning performance at the French Open, finishing second in the team free event with their highest score in more than a decade.
“We actually beat France in their home country,” said Kenmore native Anita Alvarez, who competed in duet at the Rio Games and is the sole Olympic veteran on the squad. “It was super exciting. We were going crazy.
“We weren’t expecting that at all.” Alvarez said by phone from Lafayette, Calif., near the USA’s artistic swimming training site east of Oakland. “It kind of sparked the fire again.”
Just one week after Paris, the coronavirus pandemic intervened. On March 15, California Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered a state-wide shutdown to stem the spread of the virus. One week later, the Tokyo Games were postponed until 2021. The eight-nation synchro World Series was canceled as well.
After the French Open, the Americans felt they had an outside shot of qualifying the team for Tokyo. Still, it would have been a long shot in a sport where judges slot teams based on reputation and it’s extremely difficult to move up. At the Rio Olympics, Alvarez and her partner were thrilled to finish eighth in duet, a jump from previous finishes.
Fuentes called the one-year postponement a “gift from the universe.” Alvarez said the team’s initial disappointment gave way to the happy realization that “we’ve got another year, and that’s perfect for us.”
So the women went back to work. The problem was, the couldn’t train together, or in a pool, because of the shutdown. Synchronization is the very essence of their sport, and yet they were forced to train separately.
“I remember the second week or so, I was dying,” Alvarez , 23, said. “I need to see my teammates, I need to be in the pool with them. I’m glad we could stay connected with Zoom, but it’s not the same.”
That’s all they had for three months, and Fuentes made it count. She ran Zoom training sessions for swimmers, some of whom had returned to their hometowns. Fuentes led workouts from her home, looking into the camera while her athletes went through virtual workouts — ballet, strength exercises, gymnastics, even boxing.
“In Zoom training, we’re just doing all of our other stuff we would normally do. Our strength, pushups, flexibility, stretching,” Alvarez said. “It’s nothing you have to be super synchronized with. It seems so normal for me that I forget that it’s weird for others to hear.”
Fuentes conducted the first-ever world workout, bringing together swimmers from 20 countries for a Zoom group session. Fuentes is an innovator. The organization’s name has been changed from USA Synchronized Swimming to to USA Artistic Swimming — a shift that had been made by the sport’s international body, FINA, two years earlier.
Karen Alvarez, Anita’s mother and coach of the Tonawanda Aquettes — and a former college all-American at Arizona — said there’s great enthusiasm over Fuentes in the grass roots community of artistic swimming.
“Her new coach is wonderful,” Karen said. “The energy, her whole philosophy, everything about her is just fantastic.”
Karen Alvarez said Fuentes leans on her daughter as a leader for a very young American team. Anita is 23, but the “old lady” of the squad. She knows what it’s like to join the national team as a young girl. She did it at 16, moving from Kenmore to California to be part of the Olympic program seven years ago.
Anita struggled with being away from home and family at first. But the competitor in her persevered.
“Sometimes I think, ‘I wasn’t like that when I was 16’,” she said. “Then I remember my first year out here. It’s definitely a different role. Even when I was back in Tonawanda, I was usually one of the younger girls, swimming up. It’s definitely a different position, but I’m enjoying it and learning a lot, learning to take the lead.”
She fought through the lonely times as a rising star, and the competitor in her persevered. Anita is one of the rare ones who stuck around. It’s common for the U.S. swimmers to retire young. She’s been taking college courses on-line, but wants to be part of the American revival.
“I’m old for the team, but compared to the other athletes on the international stage, I’m still a baby,” said Alvarez, who was eighth in duet at the 2016 Olympics. “In other countries, usually mid-20s is prime. People are leaving and having kids and coming back in their 30s and winning gold medals. It depends on how long your body can handle it and if you can support yourself financially.”
Artistic swimming is one sport that mirrors the situation from the Cold War era, when Americans fell behind athletes who were were part of state-supported Olympic machines.
Unfortunately, the countries that have surpassed the USA in artistic swimming have greater financial support from their governments.
“The athletes staying into their 30s are getting full salaries from their governments to do so,” said Karen Alvarez. “We don’t have that. So it’s hard to convince people to stay when you’re not getting any money to support yourself.”
Anita has no plans to retire. There’s the 2021 Olympics in Tokyo, then the World Championships in 2022. She’d be just 27 at the 2024 Games in Paris. She joined the USA team when it hit bottom. She wants to be there when it’s back on top.
“I don’t know if she says it, but I think she’s eyeing LA,” Karen said. “I was on a webinar with the 1996 Olympic gold medal team. She was on and they were talking about how great it was to swim in front of the home crowd. I just saw Anita’s face light up. I’m like, ‘She’s hooked for LA.”
That’s the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles. “She’d be 32,” her mother said. “That’s a long ways away.”
For now, Anita said she’s content to “put my head down and focus on my long-term goals.” At least she’s back in the pool. Early in the lockdown, Alvarez did some swimming outdoors on her own. But she was so desperate to be in water that she bought one of those blow-up kiddie pools.
“I ordered it from Amazon,” she said with a laugh. “Just to set up in the back yard to have some sort of feel for water. It was a decent size. I couldn’t swim upside down, but at least to scull with my hands in the water and not lose the feeling.”
After three months of Zoom meetings and a lot more land training than normal, Alvarez finally has that synchro feeling again. The USA team is practicing together at an outdoor pool in Moraga, Cal., with Covid-19 spiking in the parts of the state.
“We’re back in the pool, but it’s pretty strict,” she said. “We only have a certain amount of time and a certain section of the pool. Every morning, our coach checks our temperature and we have to do our land warmup with our masks on. Then we have to enter through a gate. Someone has to let us in.
“We get in and as soon as we get out, we have to dry off, put masks on and exit through the separate gate and basically go straight to our cars. No changing or showering at the pool. You have to go, swim, and leave.”
At least they’re together again, looking ahead to 2021. The Opening Ceremonies would have been this Friday in Tokyo. The rescheduled opening is next July 23. The qualifying is next March. Alvarez is almost sure to be in the duet in Japan. The team event is another matter.
But as Fuentes said, getting an extra year to prepare is an unexpected gift for the American women. They’re young and on the rise. They have Paris as evidence.
“We’re a really young team, and a new team,” Alvarez said. “The judges over the past year saw a lot of improvement and hope with the new coaches. They said, ‘You guys are going to be great, you just need more time.’”
Just how much time is the question for the Americans, who haven’t medaled at an Olympics since 2004. One thing seems certain. Their chances will be a lot better than 1 percent.
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.