When sports worldwide shut down in March, Andrea Fuentes could certainly have viewed the situation as a dreadful setback.
Not having the ability to access a pool or gather in groups is, after all, not ideal for an artistic swimming team, much less one trying to qualify for the Olympic Games.
But the four-time Olympic medalist for Spain turned head coach of the U.S. artistic swimming team — renamed earlier this year as part of an overall transformation of the program — looked at the circumstances and saw opportunity. She saw a way to take her squad of up-and-comers and make their mark by bringing together not only their competitors from around the world but also their fellow Team USA athletes by organizing online workouts that would welcome everyone.
“This is a strategy also to be on the map, no?” Fuentes said. “Are you a follower or are you a leader? Are you bringing something positive to your sport or shutting down and trying to survive? I decided even if we’re not the best ones still in our sport, we’re growing so fast that I was thinking we have to be the best ones in this, period. Everyone is starting from point zero, so let’s go.”
The U.S. team turned heads last summer when it showcased an innovative, robot-themed routine at the 2019 FINA World Championships. In March, the governing body rebranded with an official name change from USA Synchro to USA Artistic Swimming.
The team hadn’t yet qualified for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, hoping to break a 12-year drought (though the U.S. has qualified duets during that time), when the coronavirus pandemic hit. However, it had started the 2020 season strong with split squad silver and bronze medals in the technical competition at the world series opener in Paris at the beginning of March.
Not long after, countries around the world went into lockdown. Pools were closed. Gyms and training centers were closed. People were urged to shelter in place.
And Fuentes started to think, with other teams and coaches and athletes facing the same challenges, what could they do to work through this together?
She made some phone calls and quickly found other national programs excited for the opportunity to join together for live video conferencing workouts. Soon they had a Pan American challenge, where each country presented one specific challenge and then everyone did a dance together at the end to unify the moment with music, Fuentes said. Then every Friday turned into a different practice. Canada offered a pilates class, for instance, then the next week Brazil presented a ballet class mixed with some samba.
Fuentes’ idea turned into 150 athletes from 11 countries working out together online.
As the Olympics were postponed until 2021 and the remainder of the competitions on the artistic swimming calendar were canceled, the workouts continued.
Then Fuentes wondered, why don’t we include other sports?
She made more calls and soon 75 U.S. Olympians and Olympic hopefuls from 25 sports were participating in an online stretching session together.
“I cannot make a boxer sharper or a weightlifter stronger, so why don’t we offer flexibility, which is one of our strengths,” Fuentes said. “Every sport needs flexibility.”
From there they connected with others, including the U.S. rhythmic gymnastics team and the track and field team, for weekly sessions.
Lindi Schroeder is one half of the duet team chosen to compete together throughout the 2020 season and in Tokyo, pending qualification. At the season opener, now the only event of the season, she and 2016 Olympian Anita Alvarez won bronze medals in both the technical and freestyle duets.
This experience aligned with the team’s mission to be more of a presence not only internationally but also within the Team USA community, Schroeder said, but it’s also helped her grow as an athlete.
“I think just in the sense it’s given me a lot of opportunity just to really tune into my own body and own muscles and think, what do I need to improve on a basic level that I don’t normally get to do?” Schroeder said. “That includes a lot of injury prevention and strengthening smaller muscles, which I think will only really benefit me in the future because I’ll have a much stronger base. And one of things I’ve always loved about the sport and being on the national team is it has enabled me to travel and let me learn about different ways of life, and I’ve still been able to do that from my own home, which is amazing.”
At the beginning of May, the U.S. hosted the top swimmers from 21 nations in a video workout on what would have been the final day of the FINA Artistic Swimming Olympic Games Qualification Tournament. Together they put together a full-body workout that other swimmers but also fans and family and friends all over the world could do via livestream in their living rooms.
Alvarez represented the U.S. on the video call.
“It was such an amazing event and I was honored to be one of the athletes taking part in leading the workout,” Alvarez said. “It was really cool to be together all going through the same or similar situations stuck at home and coming together for something bigger than competition. It was a really special day.”
For Fuentes, the experience has offered a way for the U.S. team to show that while it might not be No. 1 in the world right now, the athletes don’t intend to stay where they are. They want to not only be leaders in the sport but also inspire others, she said, and be known as a team that is helping the sport evolve.
“I really want to be a game changer,” Fuentes said. “I think we’re gaining a reputation of being different from anybody else and doing it in a way that’s positive for the sport. I think it’s beautiful.”
Karen Price is a reporter from Pittsburgh who has covered Olympic and Paralympic sports for various publications. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.