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Sync Or Swim: Olympic Duet Practices Togetherness

Mary Killman and Mariya Koroleva of the U.S. compete in the Olympic qualifiers in April in London. They'll compete together in the Olympics this summer. (Getty Images)

For the first time ever, the U.S. synchronized swimming team didn't qualify for the Summer Olympics. But two of its members, who until recently knew each other only as rivals, are going to London to compete in synchronized swimming duets — against duets that have been together for years.

Mary Killman, 21, and Mariya Koroleva, 22, became roommates early last year, training with the national team in Indianapolis. Previously, they had competed against each other in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Last August, they were paired to compete as duets just six weeks before the Pan American Games, the first Olympic qualifier. They stunned competitors by taking home a silver medal there.

On the front porch of their small downtown apartment, Koroleva says their early success is encouraging.

"That was our first time swimming together as a duet, so I think we just kind of wanted to show ... we're going to be good," she says. "We just got paired together, we're on the rise ... kind of like, watch out."

But former Olympic duet competitor Christina Jones says it's going to take a lot more than spirit and long training hours for the women to do well in London. A competitor in Beijing in 2008, Jones performs for Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas now. Jones competed with both women on top rival teams in California and says while they faced stiff competition there, it's entirely different competing on the world stage.

"In countries like China and Russia, girls are paired up from childhood, and they are trained specifically for this event," she says. "The Russian duet in 2008 ... Anastasia Ermakova and Anastasia Davydova ... were swimming together since they were little, little girls."

Killman and Koroleva's coach, Mayuko Fujiki, took home a bronze for her native Japan in 1996 and coached Spain to two silver medals in 2008. She's encouraging the women to do everything they can to catch up, even if it means being together day in and day out.

"Sometimes you get stressed with another person because you're 24/7 in the same place, and you try to do exactly the same movement with another person eight hours a day," Fujiki says. "But I see the potential they will be a great duet pair in the future for the U.S."

Like it or not, Killman and Koroleva are spending nearly all their time together, trying to master their routines.

Eight-hour practices now stretch to 12 hours. In between, they drive together to weight training, yoga and Pilates.

"We do go through ... our ups and downs, but I feel like we've handled it pretty well," Koroleva says. "You know, I think we both still know that in the end we have to do this together."

Both athletes say they know this is the chance of a lifetime, and hope all these long days of togetherness will pay off in London.

Copyright 2014 WFYI-FM. To see more, visit http://www.wfyi.org.

Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

To another type of competition now. For the first time ever, the U.S. synchronized swimming team won't compete in the Olympics. It didn't qualify for the London Games this summer. But two members of that team, who not too long ago were rivals, are going to London to compete as a synchronized swimming duet. Here's Marianne Holland of member station WFYI in Indianapolis with this profile.

MARIANNE HOLLAND, BYLINE: It's 4 o'clock on a Friday afternoon, a time most young people start thinking about their upcoming night out with friends. But at the Indiana University Natatorium in Indianapolis, 21- and 22-year-old synchronized swimmers Mary Killman and Mariya Koroleva are still hard at work.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight. One, two, three, four, five, six...

HOLLAND: While they knew of each other when competing as rivals in the San Francisco Bay area, Mariya and Mary didn't really know each other until they became roommates early last year, training with the national team in Indianapolis. Last August, they were paired to compete just six weeks before the Pan American Games, the first Olympic qualifier. They stunned competitors by taking home a silver medal there. After practice is over today, we meet at the small downtown apartment the women are sharing. Sitting side by side on their front porch, Mariya says their early success is encouraging.

MARIYA KOROLEVA: That was our first time swimming together as a duet, so I think we kind of just wanted to show, like, look at this new duet. You know, we're going to be good. We're, you know, we just got paired together. We're on the rise. Kind of like, watch out.

HOLLAND: But former Olympic duet competitor Christina Jones says it's going to take a lot more than spirit and long training hours for the women to do well in London. A competitor in Beijing in 2008, Jones lives in Las Vegas now performing for Cirque de Soleil. Jones competed with both women on top rival teams in California and says while they faced stiff competition there, it's entirely different competing on the world stage.

CHRISTINA JONES: In countries like China and Russia, girls are paired up from childhood, and they are trained specifically for this event. The Russian duet, in 2008, the Anastasias we called them, but they were Anastasia Ermakova and Anastasia Davydova, and they were swimming together since they were little, little girls.

HOLLAND: Mariya and Mary's coach, Mayuko Fujiki, took home a bronze for her native Japan in 1996 and coached Spain to two silver medals in 2008. She's encouraging the women to do everything they can to catch up, even if it means being together day in and day out.

MAYUKO FUJIKI: Sometimes you get stressed with another person because you're 24/7 in the same place and you try to do exactly the same movement with another person eight hours a day. But I see the potential they will be a great duet pair in the future for U.S.

HOLLAND: As they prepare, like it or not, Mariya and Mary are spending nearly all their time together trying to mastering their routines.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HOLLAND: Eight-hour practices now stretch to 12 hours. In between, they drive together to weight training, yoga, Pilates and to and from their apartment.

KOROLEVA: We do go through, like, our ups and downs. But I feel like we've handled it pretty well. You know, we still - I think we both still know that in the end, like, we have to do this together. Like, we have to...

MARY KILLMAN: Duet doesn't really work as a solo.

KOROLEVA: So we've - I think we've tried to work out our issues, you know, really well. And that makes me happy that we can, like - that we can do that instead of just being like, well, we hate each other so we're going to try to be nice in the pool and then outside the pool we're not going to talk to each other.

HOLLAND: Both athletes say they know this is the chance of a lifetime and hope all these long days of togetherness will pay off in London. For NPR News, I'm Marianne Holland in Indianapolis.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: And you're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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