The twists, lifts and throws in a synchronized swimming routine require the flexibility of a gymnast, musicality and elegance of a figure skater, and supreme core strength — all coupled with the ability to hold your breath for more than a minute at a time.
And then there’s the final ingredient: making it all look easy.
“You swim an intricate routine, and maybe you’re tired, but you have to come up with a nice expression on your face,” Anita Alvarez, a 2016 U.S. Olympian, said. “In a duet, you have to match your smiles, the way you breathe. And with a team, there are seven other people you have to match.”
“It comes down to fixing little details, like which way your pinky (finger or toe) is facing — it’s crazy,” she added with a laugh.
Some of the world’s best solo, duet and team routines will be showcased at the 2017 Synchro America Open, held over three days this week at the Nassau County Aquatic Center in Long Island, New York.
The event, part of the inaugural FINA Synchronized Swimming World Series, is the only international synchronized swimming competition held in the United States. More than 130 elite synchronized swimmers from 13 countries are expected to compete.
“We’re excited to have it as part of the FINA World Series,” Myriam Glez, CEO of USA Synchronized Swimming since 2015, said. “There are seven events in the series, this is the sixth. It means a lot more coverage and promotion of the sport, and quite a few countries are competing.”
With the 2017 world championships in Budapest, Hungary, less than a month away, the event also marks the first time the U.S. synchronized swimming team competes together this year.
“For us, this meet is about seeing where we are as a team, and a chance to perform in front of an audience and home crowd before worlds,” Alvarez said. “We’re leaving July 1st for a training camp in Malta, and then it’s on to Budapest.”
Alvarez, who hails from upstate New York, and her duet partner, Victoria Woroniecki of Florida, train together at the Riverside Developmental National Training Center in northern California. Other members of the team began practicing together at the training center in May; the Synchro America Open is their first big test in front of international judging panels, who will grade their routines on synchronicity and execution, artistic impression and difficulty.
“The team began choreography in winter, but we’ve all been training separately,” Alvarez said. “We’re a pretty young team, I would say ages 16-21. There are athletes from Ohio State, Santa Clara club teams, high schools. Now, we’re getting together to compete as a group.”
“At this stage, you can’t make dramatic changes in choreography, but there are a lot of details to work on,” Glez said. “Coaches can sit down with the judges and get some feedback about things that need to be amended. There is so much to work on, often it’s nice to have confirmation of where the focus should be.”
Alvarez and Woroniecki, who teamed up this season, are already making a mark internationally: the duo won two silver medals in at the China Open in April. Watching powerhouse teams from Russia, China, Japan and Europe has given Alvarez insight into how Team USA can improve.
“We’re trying to work on the height on our lifts,” she said. “The lifts in this sport are really getting more acrobatic, dynamic and powerful. (Judges) really remember big lifts after a routine, and that sets you apart.”
This week, Alvarez will also compete as a solo, which poses different challenges.
“I don’t have to match anyone else, and I can swim freely on my own,” she said. “I don’t have to worry about spacing. But I can’t hide; all eyes will be on me. Everything has to be bumped up — technical skills, height, the way you move to the music.”
Glez, who competed on the French and Australian Olympic synchronized swimming teams, joined USA Synchro in 2013 as high performance director, a title she still holds. As CEO, she is tasked with improving Team USA’s results: bronze medals in the duet and team events in 2004 are the most recent Olympic medals. Alvarez and her former partner, Mariya Koroleva, competed in the duet events in Rio, but the United States did not qualify a team.
“Anita and Victoria train at the center in California all year, and are able to compete (in the World Series),” Glez said. “For the team (event), the girls train independently in college or their club teams, and join up in May or June. Teams in the top seven or eight in the world have the athletes training together all year, so they are able to be more competitive earlier in the season.”
Funding is a challenge, as are the educational needs of younger athletes. Still, the training situation will be strengthened prior to the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, where Team USA hopes to challenge in both the duet and team events.
“Training the first two years after an Olympics is flexible, but two years before Tokyo, we will have everyone training together in California,” Glez said. “In general, we have a young group. Anita is still part of the future, she is only 20, and her partner is just 16. We look at this group, as well as our junior national team ages 15-18, to make up the 2020 Olympics."
As the only returning Olympian, Alvarez may be one of the most experienced competitors, but she doesn’t think of herself as the sole leader.
“Everyone has different things to offer, and different (athletes) step up at different times,” she said. “It’s a really nice group. We’re building a lot of trust in each other.”