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It is a sport that relies on teamwork and promises spectacle – but rarely like this. The world aquatics championships were the scene of a dramatic real-life rescue when the US artistic swimmer Anita Alvarez had to be pulled from the water by her coach after losing consciousness and sinking to the bottom of the pool.
Alvarez had just completed her solo free final in Budapest on Wednesday when she fainted and drifted to the bottom in front of horrified teammates, officials and spectators.
The US team coach, Andrea Fuentes, quickly noticed that something was wrong and dived fully clothed into the water to pull Alvarez to the surface. Alvarez, who was not breathing when she was dragged to the side of the water, was then taken to the pool’s medical centre.
“Anita has been evaluated by medical staff and will continue to be monitored. She is feeling much better and using today [Thursday] to rest,” the US team said. Alvarez, who was placed seventh in the solo event, may still compete in Friday’s team event, a decision to be taken “by Anita and expert medical staff”.
“It was a big scare,” Fuentes was reported as saying by the Spanish newspaper Marca. “I was scared because I saw she was not breathing, but now she is doing very well. She only had water in her lungs, once she started breathing again everything was OK.”
On Spanish radio, she reportedly said: “It felt like a whole hour. I said things weren’t right, I was shouting at the lifeguards to get into the water but they didn’t catch what I said or they didn’t understand. She wasn’t breathing. I went as quickly as I could, as if it were an Olympic final.”
It is not the first time that Fuentes has dived into the pool to assist Alvarez, a 25-year-old from New York state who competed for Team USA in the 2016 and 2020 Olympics. In 2021, while competing in Barcelona with Lindi Schroeder in the duet Olympic qualifying event, she lost consciousness during her routine, according to reports, and had to be pulled from the pool by her partner and coach.
“She is a competitor who pushes herself to the limit, and sometimes beyond it,” Fuentes told AS on Wednesday. “It isn’t the first time, but what happened previously was that she floated and was able to keep breathing.”
Fuentes, who is Spanish and a hugely successful former synchronised swimmer with four Olympic, 16 World Championship and 11 European Championship medals, is the head coach of the US senior national team.
“We sometimes forget that this happens in other high-endurance sports,” she said in an Instagram post. “Marathon, cycling, cross-country … we all have seen images where some athletes don’t make it to the finish line and others help them to get there. Our sport is no different than others, just in a pool, we push through limits and sometimes we find them.”
Others in the world of artistic swimming – known as synchronised swimming until the governing body Fina changed the name in 2017 – said the “shocking” images of a motionless Alvarez underwater underlined the exertion demanded by the sport.
“A lot of people refer it to running 400 metres while holding your breath,” said Emma Adams, the head coach at Rushmoor artistic swimming club in Hampshire, one of the leading clubs in the UK. “It’s very demanding – not just physically but mentally as well.”
While passing out was mercifully rare, she said, “we do [have to] warn the swimmers that it is very dangerous, not just [because of the risk of] fainting. When you do the acrobatic moves, there are times when swimmers have fallen on each other and they’ve had concussion – so it is a very dangerous sport. We are constantly having to remind them of that fact.”
Maria Ramos, the chair of the artistic swimming leadership group for Swim England, the country’s national governing body, also stressed that the thousands of hours of training undertaken by each athlete made incidents like this highly unusual.
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Despite that, she said, it was impossible to replicate in practice the additional pressure and adrenaline of a major competition. “Athletes will push themselves just that little bit harder, can they go a little bit higher out of the water, put in that little extra bit of effort? A two-and-a-half minute routine will take its toll even if you’ve trained in it and swam it hundreds of times.”