Thorpe's legacy: Native American's Olympic dream

Story highlights

  • Mary Killman will be competing in her first Olympics in London
  • The 21-year-old will be youngest member of the U.S. Synchronized Swimming team
  • Killman inspired by exploits of Olympic legend Jim Thorpe, also a Native American
  • She is a proud member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation

A century after her childhood inspiration Jim Thorpe won two gold medals at the Stockholm Olympics, synchronized swimmer Mary Killman will be competing in her first Games in London this year.

Like the legendary athlete, Killman comes from a part Native American background in Oklahoma, and is a registered member of Citizen Potawatomi Nation (CPN).

Thorpe, who grew up in the Sac and Fox Nation, was spoken of in hushed tones by her elders.

"I'm very proud of my background," Killman told CNN. Her tribe are proud of her as well, regularly highlighting her achievements in their publications.

In her first solo synchronized swimming competition in 2003, Killman's routine was set to North American flute music and she wore a decoration of the CPN seal on her hip.

While growing up, she visited the house where Thorpe had lived -- and he was the subject of one of her school projects.

Thorpe was one of the greatest all-round athletes in sporting history, playing professional American football, baseball and basketball as well as his track and field exploits -- he won gold in the pentathlon and decathlon at the 1912 Olympics.

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He was controversially stripped of his Olympic medals when it was discovered he had earned a few dollars while playing semi- professional baseball, but the International Olympic Committee restored them in 1983 -- 30 years after he died in poverty.

Effortless performance

While she has a long way to go to match Thorpe's Olympic achievements, Killman is already making her name in a sport where the required elegance and good timing in the pool is forged by a grueling training regime of up to 60 hours per week.

But all the work in the water paid off when she and duet partner Mariya Koroleva qualified for the 2012 London Olympics earlier this year. A seventh-placed finish at the Olympic qualification event at the Aquatic Center in London served notice of their potential and sealed a place in the Games proper.

At just 21, Killman will be the youngest member of the United States team and will be gaining valuable experience.

Denise Shiveley, the national team manager for the squad, has high hopes for Killman and Koroleva, who has taken a break from her studies at Stanford University to concentrate on the Olympics.

They formed their partnership only last year and soon won the silver medal at the Pan-American Games behind Canada.

"They are both so young but their goal will be continue to improve and to keep getting better," Shiveley told CNN.

Early years

Killman was already a competitive swimmer in Texas when she was first introduced to synchro, aged 11.

"One of my friends invited me over to a summer program that she had got involved with and I absolutely fell in love with it," she said.

"The combination of music and athletics was amazing. It was something I felt I could do it for a long time. "

Showing early talent, Killman has made steady improvement each year, winning a clutch of junior and age group national titles, competing in both the solo discipline and duets.

Her first team was Pirouettes of Texas, where she was inspired to greater things by the exploits of Sarah Lowe, who represented the United States at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens.

"I also looked up a lot to Ana Kozlova, a three-time Olympian, who won bronze in the duet in Athens," said Killman, who now competes for the Santa Clara club in California.

Grueling regime

To reach that medal-winning standard at major games, Killman knows that many hours of training are required both in the pool and gym.

"I train between eight and 10 hours per day, " she said.

Two three to four hour sessions in the pool are interspersed with a weight-training program that lasts about an hour.

This schedule is repeated six days a week, and absolute dedication is required.

"It's mentally difficult just to push yourself that hard every day. A lot of people don't realize just how difficult it is," she admitted.

MK squared

All that hard work has started to pay off, particularly since she formed her partnership with Koroleva last year.

At 22, Koroleva is slightly older but they had known each other after competing for several years at the same competitions and they have formed a strong friendship.

"She's like a sister to me," said Killman. "We have to think the same, we have to hear music the same and we have to go to practice everyday and spend eight to 10 hours in the water with just each other."

Fellow U.S. squad team members have coined a nickname for the pair: "MK squared" as they share the same initials and have the same tastes.

Olympic dreams

The duo will go into their first Games without the pressure of medal expectation in a sport currently dominated by Russia, China and Spain.

But Killman is certainly not writing off their chances of causing an upset.

"There's always that chance that if we push ourselves hard maybe just maybe we can reach the podium," she said.

"This is it, this is what we've been working for. We really want to go out and show what we can do. "

With synchronized swimmers reaching their peak from their mid-20s onwards, Rio in 2016 remains a long-term target for Killman.