Anita Alvarez's resilience after her drowning scare—Is this the most inspiring comeback in sports?

“I find old journal entries from sixth grade or whatever where I was writing, I would love to trade places with an Olympic athlete.” That spark ignited a passionate flame, making Anita Alvarez the first three-time Olympian in US artistic swimming history.

As she gears up for the Paris Olympics with Team USA, in an exclusive interview with EssentiallySports, Anita reflected on the highs and lows that have shaped her decade-long tenure as a pivotal member of the national squad.

Anita Alvarez’s childhood and early passion for synchronized swimming:


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Let’s rewind to the beginning. Growing up in Buffalo, Anita Alvarez attended Kenmore West Senior High School and graduated in 2014. Her journey into synchronized swimming began early, inspired by her mother, Karen Alvarez, a former athlete and coach in the sport. Anita reminisced, “I kind of grew up in the sport, around the sport, traveling with her to the pool, to competitions. So I just kind of fell in love with it from the beginning. You know, I loved watching from the side of the pool, watching the practices, and memorizing my mom’s swimmers’ routines and trying it, you know, in the bathtub or in the backyard pool or on the couch. So it just kind of came to me.”

Poll of the day

What was the most shocking part of Anita Alvarez's story?

Drowning incident

Meeting Michael Phelps

Her resilience

The Rio Olympics experience

Anita Alvarez told EssentiallySports that although she dabbled in various sports, she ultimately chose artistic swimming, captivated by its unique combination of skills and artistic expression. Her family was her biggest support system as she embarked on her professional career around the ages of 15 and 16.

Upon graduating high school, Anita made the bold decision to move across the country to California. Her family supported her through this significant transition. She shared, “It’s been difficult in a lot of different ways, but they’ve supported me every step of the way. And yeah, 11 years later, I’m still out here training and they’re still supporting me.”

Beginning of her international career and Olympic dreams:

Anita’s international career began in 2013 with the Junior Pan American Games, followed by the Junior World Championships in 2014. Making her first national team marked a pivotal moment in her life, symbolizing the realization of her Olympic dreams. Inspired by watching the 2008 Beijing Olympics, she set her sights on the grand stage. She told EssentiallySports, “I finally got that USA suit, that USA cap and it felt really cool for me to be able to represent not just my home club and my family and my name, but the whole country on a bigger scale.”

She continued, “That was kind of my first step into, wow, this life is amazing. And it’s difficult, but it’s amazing. And I want to keep going for as long as I can and hopefully reach that Olympic level, which now I have.” These dreams were realized when she made it to the Rio Olympics.

The Rio Olympics: A dream realized:

The Rio Olympics in 2016 were a defining moment in Anita’s career. From qualifying for her first Olympics to being named USA Synchro Swimmer of the Year, it was a remarkable year. A particularly memorable moment was when she encountered Michael Phelps in the elevator, an experience that underscored her achievement of reaching the Olympic level.

She shared, “So I’m not usually like a big fan girl over celebrities or anything, but I walked into the elevator one day in the village and I looked up and Michael Phelps was standing right there like this huge guy. And I was like so in shock at first and I just like looked around and was like, is anyone else see this? You know? And then, yeah, I didn’t say anything. I was just too starstruck and nervous because I’d been watching him at the Beijing Olympics.

Anita continued, “That was the main Olympics that I remember really watching and I watched him win all those medals. So to see him live in person and also to realize that I am one of (Team USA), we are teammates. So that was kind of like an unreal, surreal experience where I was like, whoa.”

Reflecting on her time in Rio, Anita Alvarez fondly described the experience as a profound and unforgettable moment in her career. She recalled feeling a mix of nervousness and excitement before walking out onto the stage, realizing the significance of competing at the Olympic Games, where the whole world was watching.

Seeing her family in the stands added to the emotional intensity of the moment, bringing her a sense of calm and joy amidst the bustling atmosphere of cameras and Olympic symbolism. “Just made me feel so calm and sound inside. So I think that’s probably one of my favorites,” she said. With its glitz and glamour, the transition from Rio to Tokyo was a massive shift, especially with COVID-19 hitting everyone hard. So, what was the experience like for Anita Alvarez?

Challenges and growth at the Tokyo Olympics:

In the months leading up to the Tokyo Olympics, Anita Alvarez and her team faced significant challenges due to the uncertainties and disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. They had to quickly adapt to new realities, including switching to Zoom training sessions to maintain their fitness and refine their routines. Despite these obstacles, Anita viewed this period as an invaluable learning experience for herself and her teammates.

They embraced each challenge as an opportunity for growth, seeking new perspectives and strategies to overcome adversity. She said, “Every challenge that came to us, we took it, and flipped around. How can we see this from a different view? How can we take it and use it to grow? And so I found as hard as that COVID year was, I think I grew so much as a person and an athlete, which I think has helped make me who I am today. So I’m super grateful for that time period and for staying connected with my team and learning from them and with them.”

The Tokyo Games were tough for Anita. There were no fans, everything was quiet, and her team had just missed qualifying, so it was only her and her duet partner. It was sad not to have her teammates and family there to experience it. Despite the hurdles, Anita tried to make the most of the situation, reminding herself, “I was still out in Olympic games. And not just one, but it was my second one. So trying to take in all those moments as much as I could and yeah, and just again, learn and grow from it all.”

At the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, Anita and her duet partner finished 13th in the women’s duet competition. The hardships of the Tokyo Olympics marked the beginning of a tough period that extended into 2022, where she faced one of the darkest and scariest moments of her career and life.

The darkest moment: 2022 World Championships drowning

After the challenges of the Tokyo Olympics, Anita Alvarez faced an even darker moment at the 2022 World Championships in Budapest. During her solo free routine at the FINA World Aquatic Championships on June 22, she was giving one of her best performances when, at the end of her routine, she suddenly lost consciousness and sank to the bottom of the pool.

Her coach, Andrea Fuentes, a four-time Olympic medalist for Spain, noticed something was wrong and immediately dove into the pool, still wearing her t-shirt and shorts. Fuentes swiftly pulled Anita to the surface and, with the help of a lifeguard, brought her to the pool’s edge. Anita was then given medical attention and stretchered away.

Anita reflected on this moment to EssentiallySports, sharing that she was “Super grateful for her (Andrea Fuentes’) reaction time and the care and love for me as an athlete because yeah, it was a scary moment, but luckily I was okay and figured out a lot to be able to come back to compete and train still and just happy and grateful that I’m still here and able to now go to Paris this summer.”

Anita later reflected on the frightening incident, expressing profound gratitude for her coach’s swift response and care. Recounting the moment, she recalled a gap in her memory until she regained consciousness. Alvarez said, “I don’t remember anything until I woke up. I remember she was trying a few different things to get me to wake up, and then I remember, for me, all of a sudden my senses started coming back and everything was starting to hurt and I was feeling pain, and then I started hearing and seeing light, and then I realized all the pain was there because I wasn’t breathing.”

Anita took a deliberate breath, prompting her awakening, and found herself surrounded by medical personnel preparing to administer oxygen. Declining the mask, she assured everyone of her well-being and immediately asked her coach to contact her mom to reassure her. So how did she make a comeback after this scary moment?

Resilience and comeback since 2022: The Anita Alvarez edition

Since the incident in 2022, Anita has been absolutely incredible. The 27-year-old had bounced back in a big way, competing in six World Championships and winning one silver and three bronze medals in team events. As she prepared for her third Olympics with her teammates, Anita reflected on the intense pressures of 2023 during her exclusive interview with EssentiallySports.

She replied, “It was a crazy year. We had, you know, usually World Championships are every two years. We had one in July. We had Pan American Games in October, November, and then we had another World Championships in February. So three major competitions, very close together, very major competitions, high-pressure moments of Olympic qualification, right?”

Even with the pressure, Anita credited her team—comprising athletes, coaches, and support staff—for their unwavering support and camaraderie. She emphasized how their collective efforts enabled them to navigate through tough moments together, providing mutual encouragement and lifting each other up.

Despite facing last-minute changes and unexpected hurdles, Team USA achieved something remarkable—winning their first world medals in 16 years, securing both a silver and a bronze. Although they narrowly missed qualifying at the Pan American Games, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

This pushed them to learn, grow, and improve, setting them up perfectly for the World Championships in February, their final opportunity to qualify. Then, on February 9, 2024, Team USA not only secured their second world medal but also earned an Olympic quota for the first time since 2008.


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Preparation and focus for the Paris Olympics:

Continuing her momentum, Anita Alvarez and Team USA went on to clinch gold in the team-free event at the World Aquatics Artistic Swimming World Cup in June 2024. Looking ahead to the Paris Olympics, where competition will be fierce with teams like China, Japan, and Spain, as Anita Alvarez told EssentiallySports, “It’s everyone’s game. So we need to stay sharp and never relax, which is fun.”


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Anita Alvarez described her intense training regimen in preparation for the Paris Olympics, saying, “Training’s been pretty intense as you can expect leading up to the Olympics. Yeah, our schedule is pretty intense. We usually start at 6 a.m. so that means up before 5 a.m. And then we’re at the pool until about 2:30 p.m. So yeah, full-day, full-time job at the pool. We have a few little breaks in there, but otherwise, we’re just training the whole time.”

Alvarez noted that the current focus of their training is on refining every detail to ensure peak performance in Paris. She shared, “So we’re fine-tuning all the last pieces so that we can be at our best in Paris.” Anita Alvarez’s journey to her third Olympics in Paris is a testament to the realization of a young swimmer’s dreams, now manifested into a decade-long career as a veteran on Team USA. What do you think about her incredible journey? Drop your thoughts in the comments below!