Synchronized swim duo is living in sync

Mary Killman and Maria Koroleva were synchronized swimming rivals when they began the sport, competing against each other on Northern California club teams.

Not much more than a year ago, they were paired together as an American duet.

Though the U.S. failed to qualify for the London Olympics as a team, a failure that shocked Killman and Koroleva, they have qualified in the Olympic duet to salvage some success from the U.S. program.

And Killman, 20, of Santa Clara, Calif., and Koroleva, 22, a Russian native with U.S. citizenship now living in Concord, Calif., are so determined to be side by side in the pool that they even share an apartment bedroom.

“We brush our teeth together,” Koroleva said, which brings to mind a pair of young women standing by a bathroom mirror counting time to the up-down tooth brushing ritual.

“You have to have a big awareness of everything going on,” Killman said. “You swim so close together that you know you’re going to hit each other, kick each other, scratch each other with fingernails. The closer together you work, the better impression you give the judges. So we pretty much spend all our time together.”

The two were paired six weeks before the 2011 Pan American Games in Guadalajara and surprisingly won a silver medal, beating teams that had competed in Beijing.

It was an upbeat result for a hasty pairing.

Since then, days have taken on a certain sameness and togetherness. A normal workday is eight to 10 hours, Monday through Friday. Within that frame are two water practices, weight training, a two-hour lunch break, then more water training and stretching.

Killman said the teams that dominate synchro duet, mostly Russians, Spaniards, Japanese and Chinese, spend years together, not just a few months.

The U.S. won gold medals in team and duet synchronized swimming when the sport was introduced to the Games in Los Angeles in 1984, but its success has dwindled since then. Its last Olympic medal came in Athens eight years ago, and Killman said it was discouraging that the U.S. team failed to qualify for London.

“The U.S. basically started it,” said Killman, who began in water sports as a conventional swimmer. “The U.S. would win gold medals here and there, then the other countries came to train with us and saw what we did, then went and trained like that back at their homes, especially China and Russia.

“What makes good duets are when you join together when you’re 5 or 6, when you’re young and it’s a career choice.

“Here in the U.S. at the younger ages it’s more of a hobby. I liked it more than swimming because you could show your personality with the music.”

Killman said one of the world’s better duet teams comes from Brazil and has been together since 2004. “That’s what we’re up against,” she said.

Koroleva, whose family moved to the United States from Russia when she was 9, said she literally spends, in her words, “24-7 with Mary. To be a good duet you have to know your partner at a different level; it’s not just that we’re teammates. We have to become also like sisters.”

The two were happy to discover they were both Aries. They enjoy the same colors of nail polish at the same time — always changing, Koroleva said.

Koroleva and Killman each used the word “bittersweet” to describe how it felt when the U.S. eight-woman team didn’t qualify but their duet did.

“That was just deflating,” Koroleva said. “All the work put in didn’t pay off for a lot of the girls, but for Mary and me it did. So I think for Mary and I it was both exciting and disappointing.”

Koroleva said doing synchro helped her fit in to a new country when she came from Russia. She had a team and a sporting family.

She described her partner’s style as “more artistic and flowy. I’m a little sharper and more precise. But with that we should be able to do everything.”

Koroleva is willing also to say she thinks she and Killman have progressed enough to contend for a medal. “There’s a shot,” she said, “but with world politics, you never know. We’re just focusing on putting together the best two programs we can.”

There was a setback early this year when Koroleva needed some minor back surgery to take out an extra segment of spine, a congenital problem. “I just couldn’t swim any more with it,” Koroleva said.

She was out of the pool for two weeks but has been training furiously ever since.

Her family came to the U.S. in 1999 when her father, Nikolay, got a job as a software engineer.

She said her “coolest” moment as a U.S. competitor was standing on the medals podium at the Pan Am Games last year being awarded a silver medal and seeing the American flag raised.

“I had some extremely hard years,” Koroleva said. “Different school, different people, layout of the city was different. It took me two or three years to be fluent in English and the first few years you just don’t fit in at that age. People tease you in school and stuff. It gets better and better, and thank God it does. Over the years I’ve gotten a bigger and bigger sense of American pride.”