#4 ⇢ Competing for the Red, White and Blue with a Dual Citizenship

If you’re reading this, chances are you already know that I was born in Russia (technically the Soviet Union at the time), moved to the United States at a young age, and now hold dual citizenship in both countries. I competed in the London and Rio Olympic Games for the U.S. but have always felt that my allegiance was split between my two “homes”, which was not an easy thing for other people to understand.

Unlike many families who emigrated to the U.S. in the 1990’s, my parents were keen on maintaining the Russian culture in our household. To this day I speak Russian to my parents and brother, watch Russian TV shows and eat Russian food, and I am grateful to my parents for not letting go of these cultural nuances. Even though I was only nine years old when we came to California, I maintained a strong bond to my home country, its people, and its traditions.

When I started to get more serious about synchro and learned that Russia was dominating the world rankings, I really wanted to be on their national team. I remember telling one of my coaches that my goal was to go to the Olympics for Russia and she got angry at me. She said, “well, you live in the U.S., so you are American now, and wanting to compete for another country is disrespectful,” which I didn’t really understand. Russia was the best, and I wanted to swim for the best, so what’s wrong with that? Plus, I lived in America but my roots were still Russian. How was I supposed to give up such a big part of my life and heritage? And why did I need to pick one country to be loyal to? At the time I felt a lot of pressure to “be American” and let go of my Russian culture, and it wasn’t until I got older that I grew confident enough to openly talk about my love for both nations, not just the one I was living in.

Realistically speaking, there was no way I could ever swim on Russia’s team unless I actually grew up training there. They were (and still are) light years ahead of us in shaping young athletes into long legged, flexible, and flawless athletes who seem to have it all. So, I turned my sights on making the U.S. team, which was a much more tangible goal. For a few years I was unable to try out for the National Team because I wasn’t a citizen yet, and I would pre-swim at trials so that the judges would get to know me. It stung to watch my teammates go off to National Team training knowing that I had to sit back and wait. Finally in 2007 I was granted citizenship and made my first Junior National Team that summer.

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2008 Junior World Championships in St. Petersburg, Russia

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2015 FINA World Championships in Kazan, Russia

During my career I competed in Russia three times and competed against the Russian team at dozens of meets, including the Olympics. I would often get asked how I felt about Russia winning every competition they entered and what it was like to compete against my home country. To be honest, I have always had the utmost respect for those athletes and never really saw them as my competitors because they operated on a much higher level than any of the teams I swam on. I was happy for them when they won over and over again because I knew how many hours they trained and the sacrifices they had to make to put together those nearly perfect routines. I also had the utmost respect for them as my countrywomen (is this the right word??) because I was well aware of the political and social climate they were immersed in in Russia.

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2013 World University Games in Kazan, Russia

Because of Russia’s never ending winning streak, I saw how people in the U.S. tried to nitpick the things that weren’t perfect in their routines, or would comment on how they didn’t come up with a new lift, or that their music choice was not progressive enough. It almost felt like people were trying to find reasons to bring them down, whereas I kept thinking how amazing it was for them to maintain their #1 ranking for so many years on end. It’s like the saying goes, getting to the top is hard, but staying there is even harder. Even though I wasn’t swimming for Russia, people’s criticism of them irritated me because I still felt like they were my home team. That may sound funny given that I was living thousands of miles away and competing for the U.S., but I couldn’t help how I felt.

Of course, I am immensely proud to have represented the U.S. on the world stage and to have been a part of Team USA. This country introduced me to synchro and gave my family and I opportunities that we would have never had if we stayed in Russia. But I cannot say that I feel 100% American because my blood is still Russian. I’ll always have a deep love for both countries, and when watching the Olympics, I’ll root for both teams. I think this duality will always be a part of me, and I am proud of being Russian American!

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Walking in the Opening Ceremonies at the 2011 Pan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico

There’s a lot more that I can say on this topic but I’ll leave it here for now (and maybe do a part 2 sometime). I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic, and if you’re a dual citizen yourself I’m curious what your experience has been like.

Until next time!

xo, Mariya


P.S. If you’re interested, BBC did a segment in 2012 called “Adopted Athletes” about athletes who were competing for the U.S. in the London Olympics but who were born elsewhere. You can see my video here