Mariya Koroleva found synchronized swimming by chance.
Six months after moving to the United States, she received a flier for the sport at her elementary school. She decided to give it a try. Thirteen years later, she will represent the U.S. at the 2012 London Olympic Games.
It began in the spring of 1999. At the age of nine she had already established herself in her hometown of Yaroslavl, Russia — a city four hours northeast of Moscow. However, the country had undergone a dramatic shift earlier in the decade and her parents wanted a better life for their family. Koroleva’s father was offered a job in California and they seized the opportunity to move.
Although Koroleva did not realize it at the time, life was hard for her family in Russia. “We did not always have money for food and my parents would feed me and sometimes eat less for themselves,” said Koroleva. “My mom told me that my grandmother had to stand in line to get milk for me, because they would deliver (the milk) a couple days of the week. She would stand in line the night before, and wait all night, just to get milk.”
Koroleva, 22, struggled to adjust to her new life in the United States. She had to reinvent herself by learning English, meeting new friends and fitting in to a very different society. In Russia, she was in an accelerated program at school and it was easy for her. In the U.S., she was earning D’s and F’s and was overwhelmed.
Looking back, Koroleva realizes that her struggles reinforced what would become her greatest strength, her work ethic. She translated word after word in her grammar books, and spent hours in the library, trying to decipher the new language. “At a young age I had to learn to do it for myself,” said Koroleva.
One day at school she received a flier for a free trial for the Walnut Creek Aquanuts. She took a chance and signed up.
The first few years were just fun and games. She enjoyed the sport and was able to make new friends. However, by the age of 14, her mindset changed. During a meeting with her father and coach Tammy McGregor, Koroleva heard for the first time that she could make the Olympics. Not because she was blessed with the skill of a prodigy, but because of her work ethic.
“She had a maturity about her at a younger age,” said McGregor. “If you interview most Olympic coaches they will tell you at the end that is the most important thing. There are a lot of kids with a lot of talent but they can’t manage the stress.”
McGregor knows what it takes. She was a member of the U.S. team that won gold at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta and she also competed in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. In 2004 she served as an Olympic coach for the Czech Republic in Athens, in 2008 she was the head coach of the U.S. team in Beijing and in London she will serve as a consultant for Great Britain’s Olympic team.
After the meeting with McGregor, Koroleva began to take the sport more seriously. She competed with the Aquanuts’ Junior and Senior “A” team, and trained with swimmers who had competed, or were trying to compete, in the Olympics. “Being the worst on that team was really challenging, physically and mentally, but it really made me take a huge leap in my synchronized swimming ability,” said Koroleva. “I saw how hard they worked to be better…it taught me what competitive synchronized swimming was supposed to be like.”
Koroleva improved and was skilled enough to compete for a spot on the Junior National Team. However, since she had not been granted citizenship, she could not be on the team. Koroleva had received her green card in 2002 but needed to wait another five years. Finally, in the spring of 2007, her junior year at Las Lomas High School, she became a U.S. citizen.
Koroleva could now officially take part in Junior and Senior National Team events and she moved up in the rankings. In 2008 she was a Junior National champion in the team and trio competitions and in the fall of 2008 she began her freshman year at Stanford University.
During her sophomore year at Stanford she suffered a setback. She had a torn muscle in her hip, which she attributed to rigorous training in 2007, and also a structural deformity in her hip socket, which caused her pain. In March 2010, she underwent surgery and was unable to train in the pool for six months.
Although surgery was supposed to correct all that ailed her, it did not. She continued to be hampered with back pain that had bothered her before hip surgery. Koroleva realized that her body would not hold up until the Olympics. In December 2011, while training in Indianapolis, she consulted with doctors and athletic trainers about her pain. The issue was finally identified. In January of this year, she had another operation. The Olympic trials were only a few months away.
In mid-April, at the FINA Olympic Games qualification in London, Koroleva and duet partner Mary Killman had one last chance to make the Olympics. The duo needed to make the top-16 to qualify. Even though they had barely trained together before the trials — because of Koroleva’s recovery from back surgery and Killman’s training commitment to the U.S. team — they finished in seventh place. In London the pair will be one of 24 duets competing for a medal at the games. The first day of the duet competition is Aug. 5.
Heather Olson, who was Koroleva’s coach at Stanford University before announcing her retirement from the team as of Sept. 1, 2012, has advised Koroleva on the challenges she will face leading up to the games.
“She doesn’t just want to go to the Olympics. She wants to actually swim well and feel good about her swims. In order for that to happen, she is going to need to push through pain,” said Olson, who was an Olympian along with McGregor in 1996 and 2000 and will serve as the color commentator for NBC’s coverage of the games. “I know she needs to practice a whole lot more than she has been able to in order to be competitive in the world.”
Mariya Koroleva is used to overcoming obstacles in her life. In fact, she would not have it any other way.
“There were so many outside factors that told me no,” said Koroleva. “I was the one who pushed through the things and built through my success…I would much rather be like this than have something handed to me. The pride you get and the joy you have is so much greater.”