(L-R) Anita Alvarez and Victoria Woroniecki competing at the 2017 FINA World Championships on July 20, 2017 in Budapest, Hungary.
Anita Alvarez’s childhood was filled with memories of hanging out by the pool and watching as synchronized swimmers glided through the water.
She says she was practically “born” into the sport often known simply as synchro.
Alvarez regularly tagged along with her mother, Karen Alvarez, a former college synchronized swimmer who has spent nearly three decades as a coach for a club team in Tonawanda, New York — a suburb of Buffalo.
The younger Alvarez attempted to execute the moves she saw other swimmers do in practice. She then joined a summer synchro program at age 5.
“When I did start, I kind of had a lot of knowledge about the sport already in my brain, even though I was really young, just from watching,” she said.
Alvarez has gone from a child of the sport to a 22-year-old Olympian and a veteran on the U.S. senior national team. Even though she is still young, she has been competing long enough to offer advice to her duet partners who are both teenagers.
Alvarez has also been answering questions about whether she plans to retire following the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. None of that matters to her at the moment, especially as she prepares to compete at the 2019 FINA World Championships in Gwangju, South Korea.
Alvarez instead is focused on building chemistry with her new teammates and forming a connection with her new coach, Andrea Fuentes, who was hired last September to lead the U.S.
“Anita has the power to create goosebumps, and this is not trainable. You have it or not,” Fuentes said. “Now we are working on the confidence, which is what we need now to show her strengths to the world.”
Fuentes earned four medals while competing in three Olympic Games for Spain. As soon as she joined Team USA, she immediately noticed Alvarez’s physical talent in the pool. However, Fuentes feels Alvarez hasn’t reached her potential yet.
“Some people were telling me she was the most talented swimmer they (have) ever seen,” Fuentes said. “So I was excited to come and see it.”
The following year, Alvarez qualified for the Olympic Games Rio 2016 and finished ninth while again paired with Koroleva in women’s duet.
It was a dream come true for Alvarez, who was 19 at the time, and a big moment for her family. Her mother never got the opportunity to compete in the Games, but one of Alvarez’s close relatives has a connection to one of the biggest moments in Olympic history.
USA Hockey appointed one of her grandfathers, Richard Brinkman, to the National Rules Committee from 1979-1991. He served as the supervisor for the off-ice officials when the U.S. men’s ice hockey team shocked the heavily favored Soviet Union in the “Miracle on Ice” at the 1980 Winter Games in Lake Placid, New York.
“The Olympics have always been a really special part of our family, and we’ve always watched them at home from a young age,” Alvarez said. “So being able to actually participate in that and be a part of that and then have my family come to watch was extra special.”
Alvarez plans to compete in the team competition, duet and one of the solo events at the world championships in Gwangju. For Team USA, this is the first of three opportunities to earn Olympic quota spots in duet and/or team. Unlike in previous years, the Americans have a goal of qualifying a team for the Games instead of only bringing a duet squad to Tokyo. The U.S. last sent a team to the Games in 2008.
“It almost feels like if we did qualify with the team it would be a totally different experience than just going (to the Olympics) with the duet,” Alvarez said. “So it would almost be like my first Olympics again.”
Plenty has changed for Alvarez since she swam in Rio in 2016. She has had to find a new duet partner after Koroleva retired and then her next partner, Victoria Woroniecki, retired as well.
Fuentes, who’s 36 and competed in her last Games in 2012, has also brought a change of pace to Team USA.
“It’s like a total 180 flip from the past years, but in good ways,” Alvarez said. “It feels really different, but also I’m swimming with a completely different team. I’ve grown a lot, so this year I’m really different as an athlete, too.”
As much as Alvarez doesn’t want to think too far ahead, there remains the question of how much longer she plans to compete in synchro. Even she knows she’ll eventually have to retire, finish college and start a post-athletic career.
However, that time is not yet.
“Really if I’m (honest) about what I want to do, obviously I’d want to keep going as long as I can,” Alvarez said, “as long as my body allows.”
Alex Abrams has written about Olympic sports for more than 15 years, including as a reporter for major newspapers in Florida, Arkansas and Oklahoma. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.