Mary Killman and I competed together at the 2012 Olympic Games in London. We grew up competing at rival clubs (Santa Clara and Walnut Creek) and first swam together on the 2008 Junior National Team. After the 2012 Olympics Mary went on to swim in college at Lindenwood University.
1) Can you briefly describe your accomplishments in synchro?
I came from a tiny team in Texas and all I ever wanted to do was make the Olympic Team. Working towards that goal and dreaming of how to get there helped make it come true and more! I was one half of the duet that competed at the London 2012 Olympic Games for the United States of America. As a soloist alone I hold five U.S. Senior National titles, three U.S. Collegiate National titles, two U.S. Junior National titles, and two Junior Olympic National titles. I was named USA Synchro Athlete of the Year four times and I’ve been inducted into the Missouri Hall of Fame. I even had a guest appearance on Whose Line Is It Anyway (which I completely count as an accomplishment! We wouldn’t have gotten there without synchro)!
2) What was your Olympic experience like in London? What was your favorite or most vivid memory of that competition?
Mary and I competing in the free duet at the 2012 London Olympics.
You hear crazy stories about the Olympics, but honestly most of it is a blur in my memory. The Opening Ceremony, training, competition day, Closing Ceremony, the village, the athletes, the sports...it’s so hard to pin down just one thing. I remember loving the feeling of being around so many high caliber athletes from different countries and sports. It’s surreal to realize every person competing (and coaching!) there has given up a crazy amount of their life to fight for a dream most don’t believe to be possible.
Mary and I at the 2012 Team USA Media Summit
My most vivid memory was actually a specific moment in time and more of a feeling than anything else. Our technical routine draw was #1. This meant that our routine would literally be the first showing of the entire synchronized swimming competition of the Olympics. For me, it wasn’t the warm-up, or the time in the ready room, or the countdown clock before our walk-on that was most memorable. What I remember is the exact moment after walking on deck and hitting our last pose and the sound of the whistle. No music. No sound of the crowd. It’s that split second where it’s just the water in front of you, and there’s literally no turning back. I felt no stress, no nerves, no nothing...just the perfect existence of being in the moment.
3) What is the biggest challenge you had to overcome in sport and how did you do it?
In the world of female sports, what we look like is always scrutinized under a microscope and unfortunately synchro is no exception. The biggest challenge for me came in the form of body image. Throughout my career I never had what you would call a “perfect synchro body.” I’m not tall - I’m only 5ft 6in. I’m not naturally built like a Russian ballerina. In fact, I have wide swimmer shoulders that didn’t always show a bony collar bone, and I couldn’t seem to achieve anything more than four-pack abs no matter what crazy diet or weight loss method I tried. So I had to learn how to prove myself. To judges, to coaches, to other athletes, but most of all to myself. I worked hard on my own to gain better self-talk. I contacted athletes who had been where I wanted to be. I contacted Olympic athletes and national champions, I even sat down with a past Mr. Olympia just to see if self-confidence was something that could truly be learned. They all helped me understand that if I thought I could do anything, and if I truly believed I could do anything, then I would. Sounds simple, but it took many years to gain the self-confidence I try to live by everyday.
Mary’s solo at the 2015 FINA World Championships
Mary’s solo at the 2015 FINA World Championships
4) What was the hardest part about synchro for you?
Keeping everything straight! When you’ve got thousands of counts in your head with multiple routines, you tend to borrow moves from other places. Sometimes you use the same move in several routines and it’s hard to remember which version of the move is in what routine.
5) What was it like to compete on the collegiate level after going to the Olympics?
Originally, I had no interest in continuing my career as a synchronized swimmer after the 2012 Olympics. I wanted nothing to do with it. For various reasons and happenings during that season, I felt like I had lost my identity both as an athlete and as a person, and I had no interest in getting it back. I ended up choosing to continue synchronized swimming in college simply because it was what I knew how to do and figured it would be an easy transition out. It took me putting a lot of trust into people, which I naturally find very difficult, to get back to a place where I loved synchro again.
While I never thought I would do synchro in college after the Olympics, I’d seen many other USA athletes do so. However, I didn’t understand the world of collegiate synchro until I started at Lindenwood University. Our schedule leading up to the biggest competition of our lives (the Olympics) was tedious. Eight hours in the water, an hour of gym, an hour of muscle rehab and/or injury prevention...it seemed like it never stopped. Moving to a schedule where you train no more than four hours in the water and the occasional hour of weights, class, and homework, seemed like a cop out for an elite athlete...but goodness was I wrong. It took my entire freshman year but I did finally get my love of the sport back, and I couldn’t have imagined a better support group than my teammates and coaches. The next three years were probably my favorite years as a synchronized swimmer and even more than the amazing memories, I am grateful that some of my closest friends came from Lindenwood. I wouldn’t trade my time there for the world.
6) Why did you decide to not try out for the 2016 Olympic Duet?
This was the hardest question to answer for many reasons. I did at one time want to go for the 2016 Olympic Duet. In fact, I competed in the summer of 2013 as a soloist at the FINA World Championship and World University Games for the USA. I then took a year away from the national team in 2014 and had my first summer off since I was 12, and returned the following year to compete with the US National Team at the 2015 World Championship in Kazan, Russia. Each of these times I mentioned that I had a desire to go for 2016 as the duet once again. I understood that I had started my college degree, but was also willing to postpone my senior year in order to train full time and give my all to my sport once again.
Unfortunately, I was informed that it was the coaches’ belief that I had not spent enough time with the team, and would therefore not be a welcome addition to the duet. I would not be forbidden to try out, however it would not be suggested. Due to being discouraged to even try, and a few other personal reasons, I chose to return to Lindenwood University where I had found a home within my sport and teammates.
7) Who was your favorite coach and why?
I’ve had my fair share of coaches through the years. Due to this, I don’t really have what you would call a “favorite” coach. I say this because I don’t believe there’s one “perfect” style of coaching. Every coach has a different strength, and I’ve done my best to combine what I thought to be the best parts of each of those coaches into myself. Thanks to some amazing and average, foreign and stateside, synchro and swimming, gymnastics and dance coaches I’ve collected the competitive nature of some and the mentoring aspects of others. I can use artistic ways to look at choreography, as well as specifically focus on technical aspects. Because of this, I can’t say I have a favorite. However, I can say that the three most influential coaches in my life would be Sunny Garcia, who was my first swim coach who basically taught me to swim, Chris Carver, who was my first brush with an Olympic level coach, and Lori Eaton, the collegiate coach who brought back my love of synchro. I may not have always seen eye to eye with all of my coaches, but I wouldn’t be who I am today without their influence.
Mary’s graduation from Lindenwood.
Lindenwood team at U.S. Senior Nationals.
8) What did you do after retiring? How did you transition from being a student-athlete?
I moved to an island! Haha truly though, I moved to St. Thomas, in the U.S. Virgin Islands about a month after graduating college in order to teach swimming. I volunteered to help spread the Olympic Movement here in the USVI, and I even got to hold the 2016 Olympic Torch! Transitioning from student-athlete to real world person is tough, there’s no doubt about it. I’m still in the process of figuring out how to be a “normal” person, and I may never truly figure it out. So I chose to stay as close to the water as possible and get a job on a dive boat to work towards a dive master certification. You can take the girl out of the water, but you can never take the water out of the girl. :)
9) What are you doing now?
I’m living the island life on St. Thomas and I’m now using my business degree in my work as an executive manager at a Custom Interior Design company and also recently helped run a mermaid entertainment business here on the island. Synchro is in my blood so even though I no longer compete, I still travel to various teams and countries doing camps and clinics as well as writing choreography for solos and creating custom synchronized swim suit designs.
10) What’s something most people don’t know about you?
My first ever solo suit hangs in a museum of my Native American Indian Heritage, the Potawatomi! It’s such an honor to be represented there alongside so many influential people such as Jim Thorpe!
11) What is one piece of advice you would give an athlete who has big dreams?
Ask questions and learn from everyone! Each person has something they are the best at. This includes coaches, teammates, and especially your competitors. If you can learn just one thing from a hundred people, you will better yourself in the process.