It is mid-afternoon at the London Aquatics Centre, and the focus has shifted on Day 11 of the Olympics from speed to artistic swimming.
Twelve pairs of swimmers competing for their respective countries will now combine elements of ballet, gymnastics and aquatics in three-minute routines in which duos in perfect unison perform carefully choreographed swims. It is as though the gymnastics floor exercise has been moved into the water, as an international panel of judges scores the artistic and technical merit of the swimming pairs.
Team USA came close to not even sending a team to compete in this event, but a Stanford student, Mariya Koroleva ’12, has made the sacrifices to train eight to 10 hours a day and has qualified to compete in this event. Koroleva and Mary Killman will be the only synchronized swimming athletes the United States is sending to the 2012 Olympics. Although she has only been paired with Killman for less than a year, Koroleva’s duet has surpassed expectations and made the cut in the preliminaries. As I watch them in the surreal atmosphere of the Aquatics Centre, they now compete in the finals for the gold medal.
As Koroleva and Killman prance out to the platform to begin their routine, polite applause greets them. There is a small contingent of flag-waving Americans in the audience and even some diehard Stanford students and alumni proudly displaying their cardinal and white along with their red, white and blue. Yet, for the most part, this international audience is comprised of fans rooting for the heavily favored Russian, Chinese and Spanish duos. The cheers are also loud for the hometown British team, which is, of course, the crowd favorite. Unlike the American pair, the other duos have been swimming together for years.
It is humid and warm in the Aquatics Centre—an atmosphere clearly designed for swimmers rather than spectators. The synchronized swimmers compete in the same venue that Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte raced in.
Resplendent in their zebra-motif outfits, Koroleva and Killman gracefully dive into the water to the strains of “The Bugler’s Dream”—the now-familiar Olympic theme song. They will not be able to breathe for two out of the three minutes they will perform, and their feet must never touch the bottom of the pool.
The enthusiasm of the American swimmers is palpable as Koroleva and Killman effortlessly perform a stunning combination of lifts, verticals, dolphin arches and knight variants. It is like water-based gymnastics or aquatic ballet. These are not stressed-out swimmers, not the diva athletes whose histrionics have made other Olympic events border on melodrama. Rather, they are students having enormous fun and showing it. The largely non-American audience senses the swimmers’ joie de vivre and high energy levels and gets behind the Americans.
The spirit of Stanford has momentarily taken over the Aquatics Centre. The only thing missing is the Band.
Now the eclectic musical score changes from John Philip Sousa to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and the American pair shows that they can swim as well as the best Olympians in this arena. When they gracefully form the pattern of a flower and mimic the opening and closing of its petals several times, the multinational audience cheers.
Everything in synchronized swimming is artistic, down to the exit from the pool after the conclusion of the performance. As Koroleva and Killman make their synchronized exit, the audience gives them a well-earned sustained ovation.
Koroleva and her duet partner score a combined total of 176.670 points, earning 87.770 for the free routine and 87.800 for the technical. For the moment, this puts them in second place overall. Although the Russian, Spanish and Chinese teams will surpass them and earn the gold, silver and bronze medals, respectively, the Americans have clearly won the gold medal for enthusiasm and energy. The pool rippled with hundreds of concentric circular waves, a sight of beauty that cannot be seen and appreciated from a television camera.
If Koroleva and Killman can perform this brilliantly after so little time together as a pair, it augurs well for the United States and Stanford’s Olympic prospects once they have the benefit of more extensive training together. With Koroleva and Killman performing, America’s synchronized swimming prospects are bright.
The brilliant artistry of Mary Ann Toman-Miller’s writing performance suggests she would do a better job than a host of Olympic broadcasters. Nominate her for Rio 2016 at firstname.lastname@example.org.