Artistic SwimmingNewsAnita AlvarezMegumi Field

A Return To The Games Was A Long Time Coming For The U.S. Artistic Swimming Team

by Lynn Rutherford

The U.S. Artistic Swimming Team poses with their medals after the mixed team free finals at the 2024 World Aquatics Championships on Feb. 9, 2024 in Doha, Qatar. (Photo by Getty Images)

Nearly three decades ago, as an artistic swimming team event was contested for the first time at the Olympic Games, a 13-year-old Andrea Fuentes stayed glued to her TV in Barcelona, captivated by the U.S. team that won gold with a near-flawless performance on the other side of the ocean in Atlanta.

“I fell in love with that team, that coach (Chris Carver), the whole thing,” Fuentes recalled recently. “I became a swimmer, I went to the Olympics, I won four Olympic medals as a swimmer. But then when I finished, I wanted to become a coach. It inspired me so much. It really made a mark on my life.”

For Fuentes, who took over as coach of the U.S. team in 2018, everything came full circle at last month’s World Aquatics Championships in Doha, Qatar, when the team secured its first Olympic berth since 2008.

“This will be my first time not only bringing myself to an Olympics, but bringing a team, and (we’re) doing it in a way that’s really special,” said Fuentes, who won four Olympic medals while competing for Spain.

“We were really on the bottom,” she added. “And over five or six years, I think we’ve rebuilt — not only (due to) me, but the whole organization. It might have looked impossible (to do) in our sport, so it’s not only the result; it’s the unity and the hard work behind the result.”

Fuentes, who retired from competition in 2013, served as a coach at Team USA talent camps before being named head coach in September 2018. She took stock of the challenges confronting the program, including how to hold on to athletes as they moved forward with their college education and working lives.

“When swimmers turn 18, they go to college,” she said. “For our sport, it is very important that you (train) the whole year together, because that’s when we can synchronize and work on the same choreography. … First, I had to understand this, and then make the others understand that with this system, we will never be able to succeed.” 

Some athletes delayed college; some returned to the team after their graduation, sacrificing time from their professional lives.

“I don’t know how it happened, but very competitive people were joining, even if it meant they would (put) their professional lives on hold,” she said. “Some, after practicing for hours each day, had to go out and find jobs. … They do it for passion (for the sport), not for money, and this is what I’m super grateful for. This made the result happen and hopefully the Olympic (result) happen.”

Team veteran Anita Alvarez is a two-time Olympian in the duet event, competing alongside Mariya Koroleva in 2016 and Lindi Schroeder in 2021. Still, the team qualification has special resonance.

“It’s been a long journey for the USA to get back to this point,” Alvarez said. “This is my third round of the Olympics. I’ve been a part of two of those with just a duet, because we couldn’t (field) a team to qualify for Rio, and then for Tokyo, we just missed out on qualifying. So to finally lock in the spot in Doha was super special for the team and for myself.”

The U.S. Artistic Swimming Team competes the mixed team free preliminaries at the 2024 World Aquatics Championships on Feb. 8, 2024 in Doha, Qatar. (Photo by Getty Images)

The qualification came right down to the wire. Team USA had a chance to qualify at the 2023 Pan American Games, held last fall in Santiago, Chile, but was edged out by Mexico. Doho was the Americans’ last chance to grab one of the 10 Olympic team spots, and Fuentes was determined to succeed.

“(At the Pan Am Games) I decided to play safe and do something that was more under control,” she said. “And I think that was not a good idea. We were very close to winning. … For Doha, I thought, ‘We’re going to put the level extremely high and see what happens,’ because I think that empowers us more.”

So Fuentes increased the difficulty of several key elements in the routines, especially the lifts, in hopes of winning one of the five remaining Olympic team spots.

“I knew that if I was convinced they could make it, they would believe they could make it, and in the end, they would make it,” she said. “That was the key difference.”

Fuentes’ husband, two-time Olympic gymnast Victor Cano, acts as the team’s acrobatic coach and has been instrumental in refining their lifts.

“We took training ideas from American football,” Fuentes said. “Every (position) has a different practice (routine). Until now, our practices were always the same. And then I was like, ‘Let’s try different roles.’ So the flyer will work with Victor, while at the same time, the pushers will work on CrossFit, to be stronger.”

It worked: Team USA placed third in the acrobatic and free events, and fourth in the technical event, to finish third overall. A Team USA duet will also compete at the Olympic Games Paris 2024.

While acknowledging the technical improvements made for Doha, Alvarez thinks enhanced focus and “staying in a bubble” played an even larger role.

“When we get to a competition, all of a sudden we shift our focus sometimes to our competitors, or to the scores of everybody else and what place we (need) to qualify,” she said. “We really made it a point to go into Doha as a team and just focus in on ourselves, like we do every single day. So less distractions from the outside and more of just, ‘We need to do our job.’”

Fuentes stresses that the improvements will not stop at Doha. She is planning more for the upcoming Games.

“I have a lot more surprises planned for the Olympics,” she said. “We’re going to work on it to really make it happen.”

As the team’s training progresses at its home base at UCLA, a far less happy task awaits Fuentes: selecting the Olympic team. Only eight swimmers, plus one alternate, can be named to the squad.

“In Doha, we had our whole squad of 12 there, which I think was super special to qualify all together as a team,” Alvarez said. “It also helped us qualify, because we had all 12 of us participating in the qualification.”

“It breaks my heart in a million pieces,” Fuentes said. “Really all of them qualified the team and all of them are working very hard. But we have to carry out (the cuts) because it is the IOC rule, and I have no choice.”