Much pain and hope for gain

April 14, 2011, 1:14 p.m. (ET)

When Leah Pinette experiences pain in her right knee, it can swell up to twice its normal size and force her out of the pool, which hurts even more.

Pinette Resized
Leah Pinette, eight- time US National Team member. (USA Synchro)

Pinette, an eight-year veteran of the United States Synchronized Swimming National Team, can be limited at times by the discomfort. On some moves that require her to rotate her leg 180 degrees, she can only move it 45 after bending and straightening it. The pain subsided for most of the last year, but has returned again within the past several weeks.

“It’s just one big straight line from my ankle to my thigh,” Pinette, 25, said. “It’s not the worst pain I’ve ever been in, but it has its moments.”

Over the past few years, Pinette has dealt with an endless series of emotional and physical hardships. She has always found ways to cope with the pain. Days before the start of her sophomore season at The Ohio State University, Pinette received word that teammate Jessica Beck had passed away earlier that morning in her sleep.

Months later her twin sister and lifelong duet partner, Leayn, informed her that she had plans to quit the sport and transfer.

Then last October, Pinette again experienced shock when she heard that Meghan Kinney, her teammate on the National Team, had been diagnosed with Osteosarcoma, an aggressive form of bone cancer. Kinney was an alternate for the U.S. Olympic team in 2008.

“It was another unbelievable event in my life,’’ Pinette said. “Luckily, we were all training together. I guess I wouldn’t say grieve, but come together and get the support we needed. We had to be there for Meghan, as well.”

Somehow, Pinette has persevered.

This weekend at the U.S. National Synchronized Championships, Pinette will return to McCorkle Aquatic Pavilion — the pool she competed in at The Ohio State University from 2004 to 2008. On Saturday, the National Team will unveil a pair of routines to be performed at the 14th FINA World Championships from July 16-23 in Shanghai. Pinette and her teammates will also be able to visit Kinney, who is receiving chemotherapy treatment at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus.

“She’s pulling though and she’s going to make it,” Pinette said of the former National Team captain, adding that Kinney is an “Olympian at heart".

“She has that drive to pull through.”

Ohio State Synchro perform their Team routine during the finals of the the USA National Synchronized Swimming Championship, April 28, 2007 in Indianapolis, Indiana. ( Al Bello/Getty Images)

Pinette has always had a similar drive, and she hopes she will be able to represent the United States next summer at the London 2012 Olympic Games.

Pinette and her twin sister started competing at 4, but first entered a pool much earlier. Two weeks after they were born-- six minutes apart on Nov. 22, 1985,-- their grandmother Ann Begman, had them in a pool outside their home in Bristol, Conn. After coaching Karen and Sarah Josephson, twin sisters who captured gold in the duet at the Barcelona 1992 Olympic Games, Begman wanted to pass along her love of the sport to her granddaughters.

“We were all dedicated swimmers, very hard working and they had to do a lot of training to get where they were,” Leayn said. “We kind of fell into their footsteps, per se, and took on their roles. They were hard workers and that’s what we wanted to be like.”

The sisters finished 13th in the duet at U.S. Nationals in 2004 and both enrolled at The Ohio State University later that fall. The two were inseparable, spending nearly every second together in class, in the pool and in the dorms. In 2005, the Buckeyes finished third as a team in the U.S. Collegiate Championships and the Pinettes placed 11th in the duet at U.S. Nationals. By that fall, though, Leayn had lost her passion for the sport.

“She basically said that she would love for me to keep swimming because that would mean that she would keep her duet partner,” said Leayn of her older sister. “In the end, she wanted what would make me happy. She didn’t try to talk me out of it at all.”

Leah and Leayn swam together for the final time at the 2006 U.S Open where they placed second behind Canada in the duet. That fall, Leayn transferred to the University of Connecticut and the twins were apart for the first time in their life. Leayn later received a master’s degree in Early Childhood Development from the University of New Haven and is now a teacher in upstate New York.

“It was really tough; I was really hurt at first,” Leah said. “It made us stronger as individuals and our relationship got stronger through it. She’s still a part of it day-by-day and I’m still part of her life day-by-day.”

The Ohio State Synchro team perform their Team preliminaries routine during the USA National Synchronized Swimming Championship, April 27, 2007 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Al Bello/Getty Images)

By the start of her senior year, Pinette was placed in a bind: she could continue to swim on her gimpy knee or opt for surgery which could have ended her collegiate career. She chose the latter and returned in time to lead the Buckeyes to the Team Routine Title at Collegiate Nationals. Leayn has since developed a similar injury and the twins now believe the ailment is genetic, not performance related.

Despite the injury, Pinette continues to swim. In the demo Saturday, the National Team will perform its free routine to Stravinsky’s “Firebird” and its technical routine to Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman.” There is “high energy” in the technical routine, Pinette says, but the free routine is a “little more classical.”

As she continues to fight through the pain, Leah’s goal remains the same: to earn a spot on the 2012 Olympic team. Leayn has already started to save money for a trip to London to watch her sister compete.

“It’s definitely her goal, but at one point of my life it was mine,” Leayn said. “She’s just working hard to get there and anything she has to do, she’s willing to do it.”