By Doug Williams | Sept. 26, 2018, 6:33 p.m. (ET)
Andrea Fuentes (R) competes at the Olympic Games London 2012 on Aug. 7, 2012 in London.

 

Since being hired in mid-September as head coach of the U.S. synchronized swimming team, Andrea Fuentes’ mind is on overload. It’s swimming in thoughts, plans and to-do lists.

The four-time Olympic medalist from Spain has been busy getting her home in order for a move to the U.S. (along with her husband, Spanish two-time Olympic gymnast Victor Cano, and their two children), looking for a place to live in the Bay Area near the team’s training center in Moraga, California, and formulating ideas to help the U.S. get back to the upper echelons of the sport.

On one day last week, too, she met with some professional dancers who perform in both Spain and San Francisco about adapting some of their choreography into U.S. synchro swimming programs.

It’s a huge challenge for Fuentes, 35, who’s never been a head coach for a national senior team.

The U.S., once dominant in the sport, hasn’t medaled since 2004 and hasn’t qualified for Olympic team competition since 2008, only duet. Yet Fuentes, who has two silver medals in duet and a silver and bronze in team competition (all from the 2008 and 2012 Games), is eager to get to work.

She hopes to be settled in and on the job by early November.

“I was absolutely excited about this idea, because as a kid I always admired USA in synchronized swimming, because when they start, they were in the top,” said Fuentes, a three-time Olympian and 16-time world championships medalist who speaks Spanish, English and French. “You were the creators of this sport. And for me, talking about USA when I was little, it was the best team in the world. … I was very excited (to take the job) because I really think I can do a great job there. One of my missions is to make the team come back to the top position.”

The U.S. won Olympic gold the first time the team event was held, at the Olympic Games Atlanta 1996, but has only achieved one medal since, a bronze in 2004. Americans have medaled in duet four times (two golds, a silver and bronze), but not since 2004.

Fuentes’ immediate goal, she says, is to get the U.S. team qualified for the 2020 Games in Tokyo. Beyond that, she’d like to work with USA Synchro to help fine-tune a national program so it can consistently compete for medals at every Games and world championships.

It won’t be easy. The U.S. was 12th in the team competition at the most recent FINA World Championships in 2017. The U.S. could earn a berth to the Tokyo Games by winning the team event at next year’s Pan American Games in Peru, but it would have to outperform Canada and Mexico, which were seventh and eighth in 2017 in Hungary and finished 1-2, above the U.S., at the 2015 Pan Ams before Rio. After the Pan Ams, remaining opportunities to qualify include being one of the top two non-qualified nations at the 2019 world championships or placing top three at the Olympic Games Qualification Tournament in 2020.

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Fuentes admits it will be hard for the U.S. to jump over several teams to get to Tokyo, but wants to try.

“I will do my best and we will go for it,” she said. “And if we achieve the goal, I think we will be heroes. It’s not impossible.”

Fuentes said she wants to observe first before making any drastic changes in the program. With USA Synchro naming its national team for 2018-2020 earlier this month, she said she’d like to get to know the players and culture. She’s already somewhat in tune having been coach of USA Synchro’s Olympic Development Camp last year following work at some U.S. talent camps previously.

But she believes the U.S. needs to do a few things to climb the sport’s ladder: keep more athletes with the senior program (instead of having them scatter during their college years), allow for more hours in the water for training and pursue more funding for the national team.

She is certain the U.S. has the talent to succeed.

“We need to define this talent and define a style that only the U.S. can do,” she said. “We need time to know the personality of all the team, and this will be a (good) team.”

She says she can draw on her own experience and success as an athlete – particularly her strengths in artistry and biomechanics – and can tap into the experiences she had watching and learning on the Spanish national team, where coach Ana Tarres often brought in experts, choreographers and coaches from around the world to teach specific skills.

“I learned from a lot of different people and then I created my own expertise,” Fuentes said. “It’s a mix of very different coaches and countries joined with my personality, I think, in a good way. But I have to tell you, it’s the first time. I have to be honest, it’s the first time I will be a head coach, so in my head it’s clear how it should work, but of course I’m sure it will improve with time and experience.”

Doug Williams covered three Olympic Games for two Southern California newspapers and was the Olympic editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has written for TeamUSA.org since 2011 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.