Joanne Wright has coached synchronized swimming for 39 years and has never had an Olympian. She thinks Kenmore West’s Anita Alvarez is going to be the one to change that.
Alvarez doesn’t talk much outside the pool. She thinks over each word meticulously and smiles shyly.
When she covers her brown eyes with black goggles, though, she turns into a different person. Alvarez’s athletic ability speaks effusively.
The operatic music begins and she sinks underwater at the Tonawanda Aquatic and Fitness Center, emerging as a ballet dancer. She goes back under and her long, olive legs emerge helicoptering. Her swimsuit’s sequins and rhinestones add to the aesthetic imagery as she twirls through the water.
Alvarez is an entertainer in the water, and she’s one of the 12 best female synchronized swimmers ages 15-18 in the country.
The meek, 16-year-old soon-to-be junior at Kenmore West has qualified for the USA Junior National Synchronized Swimming team. She is training with the squad in California and will represent the United States Aug. 15-22 at the UANA Pan-Am Synchronized Swimming Championships in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Alvarez attended three flights of tryouts, the first phase beginning with the 50 best competitors in the country. All 50 made the second flight before being reduced to 20 for the third. The final 12 were rushed to a team meeting when they found out they made the squad at the final tryout in Walnut Creek, Calif., but Alvarez made sure she sent one quick text message.
“I was waiting by the phone anxiously,” said Karen Alvarez, her mother. “I had tears of joy when I saw it. It said, ‘I made it,’ with a big smiley face.”
In synchronized swimming, teams perform choreographed routines involving dancing, swimming, jumping and team throws, among other things, without their feet touching the pool’s floor. They use a hands-free “eggbeater kick” of rapid circular kicks to stay afloat and lift each other.
“I always really liked it and had dreams of getting better and going further,” Alvarez said. “It’s such a unique sport. People ask all the time what it’s like and it’s so hard to explain. It’s a combination of so many different things.”
Karen has coached the young Tonawanda Aquettes teams all of her daughter’s life. Wright and her daughter, Jill Shovlin, coach an older team, of which Alvarez is a part. They’ve seen her come up through the sport since she started competing at age 6.
“She’s very quiet, shy and humble, and that makes it very easy to coach her,” Shovlin said. “She’s always looking for things she can do to get better or improve. She never misses practice or comes up with an excuse. She has amazing commitment and drive and has worked really hard for this.”
Wright said Alvarez is always the first one to practice and the last to leave.
“She’s very determined but she’s very quiet, too,” Wright said. “She’s really sweet and very friendly at the same time, and everybody really admires her.”
When Alvarez isn’t listening to Bruno Mars, watching “Dance Moms” or making tortillas, she enjoys helping coach the younger Aquettes.
“It’s exciting not just for us, but for the whole team – for the little kids to watch her do something so great,” Shovlin said.
When Alvarez was 13, she swam with three 18- and 19-year-olds in the 2010 U.S. synchronized swimming national championships. They won gold.
That was the moment David Alvarez, her father, “knew there was something special going on.”
Alvarez has been a national champion three more times since then, in duet competition in 2011 and figures and solo in 2012.
She also competes for the Ken West swim team and has made sectionals every year since eighth grade, but she won’t tell you that. She’s uncomfortable talking about her accomplishments. Humility is one of Alvarez’s most defining characteristics.
“She’s very down to earth, a normal 16-year-old girl,” David said. “Her work ethic, when the girls have off of practice, she still goes to the pool, but she’s very modest. I like that part of it.
“Once in a while you come up with this talent level that you just know there’s a special athlete, not just because she’s my daughter. We knew from a young age that she just had it in her. She has drive. She has determination. She takes corrections well. And she’s a special athlete.”
Alvarez was born into an athletic family. Karen swam for the Aquettes and Kenmore West and was an All-American in synchronized swimming at the University of Arizona. David played AAA Muny baseball, a premier amateur league, and has coached the sport at St. Joe’s for 17 years.
Alvarez has been practicing three hours a day, six days a week, since she was 9 years old, but she said she appreciates that her parents “never pushed me to swim; I didn’t have to do it if I didn’t want to.”
In addition to work ethic, Alvarez’s slender, 5-foot-7 frame contributes to her dominance. Wright calls it “the perfect body for the sport.”
Alvarez will take her skill to Puerto Rico as the only East Coast representative, with the other 11 hailing from California, Arizona and Oregon. David said representing Western New York and the entire East Coast is one thing she’s extremely proud of.
Shovlin, her coach, made the same team in 1998 and 1999.
“I know what it’s like to be able to compete for your country and it’s just a whole different kind of victory, and she’s so excited,” Shovlin said.
Alvarez prepared for California by doing Pilates, cross training, running and lifting weights occasionally as she aimed to shine on this year’s U.S. team, which is themed “Mermaids.”
“The past few years, I’ve had a goal of eventually making the national team and competing internationally and representing the United States,” Alvarez said. “This has been a big one, but I also have a goal of competing on an Olympic team someday.”
Alvarez said she will likely try out for the 2016 Games, which will take place after her freshman year of college.
Is it a reasonable aspiration?
“I totally see it for Anita,” said Wright, who has been around the sport nearly four decades. “She’s young to be so talented.”