While the Pan American Games typically serve as a gateway to the Olympics for both the top-finishing synchronized swimming team and duet, this year only the duets will be looking to qualify for Rio.
Because Brazil is hosting the Olympic Games in 2016, the team spot normally reserved for the Pan American champion is automatically given to the host country. With Brazil and the winners of continental championships in Africa, Asia, Europe and Oceana, constituting five of the eight teams at the Olympics, Team USA must earn one of three remaining spots at the Olympic Games Qualification Tournament in April 2016.
Therefore, for those competing for the U.S. in the team event, in addition to offering the opportunity to represent their country in a multi-sport environment that mirrors the Olympics, the Pan Am Games will serve as a chance to prepare for the world championships that take place two weeks later.
And for the two selected for the duet – Alison Williams and Mariya Koroleva – a shot at qualifying for Rio will be on the line.
At the 2011 Pan Am Games, Koroleva and Mary Killman earned the silver medal to qualify in the duet for the 2012 Olympics, where they placed 11th.
Finishing second to Canada at the 2011 Pan Am Games, Team USA missed the opportunity to compete as a team in London.
One of Team USA’s goals for the Pan Am Games is to defeat its northern neighbor. In the last four Pan Am Games, the U.S. and Canada have each won twice.
“We’ve always had a little rivalry with Canada,” Koroleva said. “We’re always trying to pass them up, especially since last time they clinched that spot for the Games.”
In Toronto, the athletes will stay in a village, eat at dining halls and experience Opening and Closing ceremonies. While three swimmers – Koroleva, Killman and Williams – return to their second Pan Am Games, this setting will be unfamiliar to team members who are new to the senior level.
“(Koroleva’s) always trying to describe to the athletes what it is going to be like to go to the Pan American Games, what to expect and what we need to work on so we stay focused on the goal rather than being distracted by what’s going on around the competition,” said Myriam Glez, the USA Synchro high performance director.
Since September, the team has trained together in Moraga, California. In that time, team members have developed four new routines to be performed at the Pan Am Games.
“We’re all coming from different places in the sport,” Alvarez said. “And it’s been nice to all be together for so long training so that we can really get to know each other, get to know how everyone swims. It’s definitely helped bring us closer as a team.”
Team USA has not medaled at the Olympic level since 2004, but Koroleva hopes a strong performance in Toronto will set a standard that will persist through the 2016 Olympics.
“We’re hoping to make a statement, and in synchro all it really takes is one competition,” Koroleva said. “As soon as that kind of thought gets in the judges’ minds, it sets the wheels in motion for moving up our ranking and hopefully getting up to the podium in a couple years.”
The synchronized swimming competition will take place at the CIBC Pan Am/Parapan Am Aquatics Centre and Field House from July 9-11. A technical routine and a free routine will be performed in both the duet and team events.
Emily Giambalvo is a student in the Sports Media Certificate program at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.