Women We Laud: Gold Medal Edition

Synchronized Swimming Duet
Mary Killman and Mariya Koroleva are in sync! They spend 8 to 10 hours a day in the pool, perfecting their routine, treading water until their muscles burn, and smiling through it all. While the United States didn’t qualify for the team event for the London Games, Killman and Koroleva are excited to represent the U.S. on the biggest stage in world athletics in the synchronized swimming duet.

Synchronized swimming has all the glamour of figure skating, the grace of gymnastics, and the coordination of dance. Duet teams, especially, have to be in perfect harmony and spending a ton time together is the only way to build the foundation for a flawless competition performance. Killman and Koroleva have been duet partners and roommates for less than a year and surprised many fans by snagging a silver medal at the 2011 Pan Am Games, just six weeks after they started training together for the duet. “Needless to say, it hasn’t been too difficult to really come together as a duet. We’re really lucky!” says Killman.

While she had always been aiming for the Olympics, Killman’s career began as a speed swimmer. At age 11, she also took up synchronized swimming, and at 15 decided to focus her energy on speed swimming’s glamorous cousin, synchro. Killman is a Native American, and a proud member of the Potawatomi Nation. Koroleva was born in Russia, and moved to the United States when she was 9 because her father started a new job in California. The first few months in a new country were rough, as Koroleva struggled with a new language and making friends. When a flyer advertising a two-week synchronized swimming clinic came in the mail, she jumped at the opportunity, and never stopped swimming.

In London, they’ll be competing against duets that have an Olympic Games or two under their belts, but Killman and Koroleva—both first time Olympians—still have their eyes on the winners’ podium. “I absolutely love going to competitions,” Killman says. “Just being able to walk out on deck and know that you’re representing your country is a great honor.” And the Olympics offers an exciting experience that other competitions can’t match. “I’m looking forward to being in the Olympic Village! Being around all the other sports and all the other countries … and all the other Olympic athletes who have worked so hard to get there.”

Mary Killman’s Go-To Hair Care Product: Infusium 23’s Renew and Repair leave-in conditioning spray. “So much chlorine can take a lot out of your hair! [Infusium 23’s spray] goes on after every our second practice of the day so that it has time to work its magic the rest of the night.”

Ariana Kukors

Ariana Kukors is headed to her first Olympic Games, and she’s poised to make a splash. But qualifying for London 2012 was no easy feat. The Olympic trials were held in the same pool Kukors swam in when she narrowly missed making the 2008 U.S. Olympic team. The support of her family—especially her sisters, who both swim—helped her overcome her nerves to score a spot in her top event, the 200 individual medley. She’s the current world record holder in the 200 individual medley and has earned seven medals in major international competitions, including the World Championships and the Pan Pacific Championships.

A lot has changed for Kukors over the past four years. She has graduated from Chapman College with a business degree, moved to Florida, and learned that balance is the key to successful swimming. Despite being so far from her family, the Seattle native stays in close contact with them. She wears a pair of pearl earrings 24/7—even in the pool. They were a high-school graduation gift from her father and comfort her whether she’s training or competing. As she told USA Swimming, “My mom always said, ‘You are not a swimmer, you are a person who swims.’” Taking the time to develop hobbies and interests outside of the pool, including playing the piano and kicking back with friends at Disney—one of her favorite places—has given her perspective. And several hours in the pool each day, working to speed up her stroke, have also paid off.

What’s going to be the highlight of the Olympics for Kukors? “I am looking forward to representing the United States first and foremost. It is such an honor to be able to represent my country on the Olympic stage! I am also excited to experience the Olympic village and really absorb and enjoy the atmosphere that comes with the gathering of athletes from all over the world.” And the world will be watching Kukors as she defends her world record in London this summer.

Ariana Kukors’s Go-To Skin Care Products: Vertra face sunscreen and Kiehl’s tinted moisturizer. “I train outside, so skin care is a huge priority for me. I wear Vertra face sunscreen every day and love it. It is the only product that will last on my skin for three long hours in the pool.” Meanwhile Kiehl’s “helps conceal redness right after practice.”

Mariel Zagunis

Mariel Zagunis has all the confidence of a world champion, but it doesn’t come easy. At 27, Zagunis is already a two-time Olympian. In 2004, she didn’t qualify for the U.S. Olympic Team at first, but when the Nigerian team withdrew from the Games, she was next in line to fill the open slot in the individual women’s sabre competition. She went on to win the gold medal—the first fencing medal ever won by an American woman and the first for any American fencer in over a century. By 2008, Zagunis had won a slew of medals, including those for the World Cup, World Championship, and NCAA Championship, not to mention easily staying at the top of the national standings.

Zagunis came home from the 2008 Olympics with two medals: a bronze in the team event and another gold in the individual event. Her U.S. teammates Sada Jacobsen and Becca Ward finished in second and third place in the individual competition, making for an all-U.S. winners’ podium. Since then, Zagunis has continued her winning spree to become the most decorated U.S. fencer in history.

Going into 2012, the bar is set high and spectators around the world will be watching her defend her title as two-time Olympic champion. Having her eye on a gold three-peat is daunting, but Zagunis’s enthusiasm and energy shows when she talks about her upcoming competition, and it’s clear she is aiming for another gold. “I’m just as excited,” she says, “but it’s a lot of pressure.” Luckily for Zagunis, she comes from an Olympic pedigree. Her parents met at the Montreal Games in 1976, where they both competed as Olympic rowers. “She gets it,” Zagunis says of her mother, who has been a source of support for the entire U.S. women’s sabre squad. “She’s the team mom.”

While she looks forward to the pomp and circumstance of the Olympic experience, Zagunis is staying “focused on winning.” But that doesn’t mean she won’t have fun. “Being in the Olympic village is a lot of fun. It’s really fun to be able to walk around and see all the different types of athletes from all the different countries. Just to be in that environment is awesome—it’s energizing—and we’ve all worked our butts off to get there.”

Mariel Zagunis’s Go-To Beauty Product: Waterproof mascara and facial cleansing wipes. “I work out two and three times a day, so washing my face in between is really important. I don’t wear a lot of makeup when I practice, but I do like to put a little on my eyes every day and waterproof mascara is the number-one product I use.”

Classic Heroine
Fanny Blankers-Koen (1918 – 2004)

Track & Field, Pentathlon
London is buzzing with Olympic energy, but 2012 isn’t the first time the city has hosted the Olympic Games. In 1948, London was rebuilding after heavy bombings during World War II, and it hosted the first Olympics to be held since the war. And it was here that Fanny Blankers-Koen became an international star.

Dutch sprinter Blankers-Koen had competed in the 1936 Olympics and in the European Championships in 1938. Just as she got a taste of success, her opportunities to prove herself on the track were cut short—the Olympics in 1940 and 1944 were cancelled as war waged across Europe. In those turbulent years, Blankers-Koen got married (to her coach), started a family, and disappeared from the public eye. Then, in 1946, she surprised everyone by competing in the European Championships and winning the gold in the 80-meter hurdles—just six weeks after giving birth to her second child.

Her competitive spirit and success ignited a fierce debate about whether she was neglecting her household and maternal responsibilities by returning to the track. But no one could deny her talent, and she was soon dubbed the Flying Housewife. Despite the debate, and the fact that many people felt that at age 30 she was too old to compete, Blankers-Koen forged ahead. By the time she arrived in London for the 1948 Games, she held six world records and had her eye on her first Olympic gold. She was also in the first trimester of her third pregnancy, but kept it a secret to minimize criticism from the press.
In the 1948 games, Blankers-Koen dazzled sports fans around the world when she placed first in four events: 100 meters, 200 meters, 80-meter hurdles, and 4 x 100-meter relay. Many speculate that she could have also nabbed gold medals in the long jump and high jump—for which she held world records—but a rule stated that women were allowed to compete in only three individual events. She returned home with a record-breaking four medals in a single Olympics—a feat that was, at the time, equaled only by her idol, Jesse Owens. Upon her return to the Netherlands, the nation gave her a bicycle to honor her accomplishments. That was before there were endorsements or contracts, but life for Olympic athletes was different, too. Instead of daily training sessions, she practiced twice a week.

Blankers-Koen returned to the Olympic track in Helsinki in 1952, but an injury forced her to withdraw. By the time she retired, the Flying Housewife had set 16 world records in a range of track, field, and pentathlon events. In 1999, she was named female Athlete of the Century by the Association of Athletics Federations. She also raised the bar for women’s athletics, proving that women don’t have to choose between their family life and athletic success.

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