Synchronized Swimming Actually Sounds Incredibly Grueling

The only two synchronized swimmers representing the U.S. at the Olympics are Mary Killman and Mariya Koroleva. Here they discuss their brutal training schedule and underwater cardio exertion, and how far people’s perception of their sport differs from reality.

John Bragg

Mariya Koroleva (left) and Mary Killman.

Mary Killman, 21, and Mariya Koroleva, 22, will represent the US in the synchronized swimming (“synchro” for short) duet event in London. Koroleva is a student at Stanford, and Killman hasn’t yet entered college but hopes to one day major in art history. The US didn’t qualify in the larger team event, so they’ll be the only synchronized swimmers from the county competing in the 2012 Games.

What’s the hardest thing about what you do?

Mary: I think it’s making it look easy. The easier we can make it look the better we are at it. The goal is to make people think it’s totally [easy] — then if they try it, they realize how hard it is.

Mariya: You’re striving to be perfect, which is pretty much impossible. When it gets close to competition, you’re changing these little minute things. The differences are so small, and it’s really hard to make those changes. We have to match every single position with each other. If an arm angle is two inches off, it doesn’t look the same. Our routine is three and a half minutes long and we have about 1,000 positions we have to hit. Knowing exactly where to put your hand or leg is really hard.

How do the choreographed elements of the competition affect the athleticism required?

Mary: You have to be upside down for half of our routine. We’re holding our breath for that entire time. It’s a full-body workout — we’re not track athletes where it’s mainly core and legs. We use the same eggbeater motion as water polo players do, but we’re doing it with our arms too. And when a competitive [non-sychronized] swimmer wants to breathe, they just breathe. But for us we have to wait the next eight counts, or however long until we’re not upside-down anymore.

How did you get into a lesser-known sport like this?

Mary Killman: I got involved when I was 11, in Texas. I started with competitive swimming, and one of my teammates got me involved in a summer program in synchro. Mariya moved to California when she was 9 from Russia. She moved into the Walnut Creek area, which has a big synchro team, and signed up for a summer program there.

Talk about an average day for you.

Mariya Koroleva: On a typical day we have two water practices. So we do two and a half hours of water practice in the morning, then to the weight room, then back to the pool for three or three and a half more hours. Then sometimes we’ll have cardio, or we’ll go through the video of the day’s practice.

Clive Rose / Getty Images

Mary Killman and Mariya Koroleva during an Olympics qualifying event in April.

Is body image an issue in your sport?

Mariya: It’s a huge issue. You can compare it to gymnastics. When you walk out on deck, you have to look a certain way. You have to look fit, you have to look athletic. When you walk out and the judges see you, they already have an idea in their minds of what score you’ll get. And in the routine, if your legs are smaller and you have more muscle definition, your routine will look better.

How about eating disorders?

Mariya: Definitely. There’s so much pressure to look skinny, to look fit. People don’t always do it in a healthy way.

Mariya, you were also a rhythmic gymnast when you were younger — is that sport similar to synchronized swimming at all?

Mariya: Flexibility was a huge issue and that’s a huge part of synchro too. The emphasis on the flexibility of your core, and on stretching, is very similar.

Do you struggle to be taken seriously?

Mariya: It’s definitely hard because I think a lot of people still have that image of [Forties swimming-musical star] Esther Williams, and the sport has evolved since then. It’s more athletic, and a lot more competitive. People are really surprised when they hear about the training, or when they get in the pool and try it with us.

Is that changing?

Mary: It depends. In the airport, sometimes people ask us what stroke we swim. But you do come across the occasional person that’s like, “I did that in high school.” But the sport has changed so much that it’s probably not the same sport you did in high school. They’ve done studies about how synchronized swimmers train the most of any Olympic sport — the most hours. I think that makes some athletes respect us more. We’re literally training all day, every day. Our training doesn’t end at the pool, it continues til we go to bed.

Mariya: A lot of athletes have a morning practice, then they have six or seven hours before the next practice. They can go to school or have a job in that time. For us it’s literally a full-time job. It literally takes up all day.

Clive Rose / Getty Images

Killman and Koroleva at another qualifying event in April.

Has it been hard to balance training with school?

Mariya: When we’re training for the Olympics we can’t really go to school. I took a leave [from Stanford] and we literally just put all our energy into training.

Even in high school I trained about four and a half hours a day. I ended school about 2 o’clock, then practiced til about 8.

Mary: I was on a smaller team in high school, so our practices were two or two and a half hours. But I lived in Texas, so you’re driving 45 minutes to an hour to school and practice. It takes up a lot of your time.

You haven’t been training together as long as some of the duets in the Olympics — are you doing anything special to try and catch up?

Mariya: We live together, so that’s been a way for us to get on the same page faster, because we spend all day every day together. Other than that, there’s not a lot you can do. I know some of the other duets are also competing in the team event, but we are not, so we have a little bit more time to train for duet.

What makes all the training worthwhile for you?

Mariya: You put in all these hours, and practice is not actually fun. You’re putting yourself through this weird pain of holding your breath, and doing cardio. But when you go to the meet you get to showcase all that work. And when you walk out on deck and everyone’s watching, and the pool is just lying there still, waiting for you, it’s a pretty cool feeling.

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