Natalia Tarasova has been Hungary’s head coach for about three years, but the former Russian national team member has had a unique path that took her around the world before settling down in Budapest. From being a student-athlete in the U.S. to coaching in Switzerland and Indonesia, she opened up to Inside Synchro about her athletic and coaching career.
Tarasova was born in Moscow in 1987, and started synchronized swimming at the age of seven when her parents brought her to the pool to simply learn how to swim. There, she met Ilina Lubov, the woman who would become her longtime coach. Lubov quickly told Tarasova’s parents she was very talented for the sport of synchro, and that she should look into it.
At the time, Tarasova couldn’t decide what to focus on. She also was doing rhythmic gymnastics, dancing, judo, as well as painting and singing. However, synchro rapidly caught her full attention.
“It was back in 1995 and synchronized swimming wasn’t a popular sport in Russia,” she said. “But my parents and I really wanted to give it a try. After a few years, I was totally in love with the sport.”
Tarasova quickly improved and moved up through the ranks. At 13, she became national champion and made her first national team to represent Russia at the COMEN Cup, the biggest 13-15 international competition. She continued making the national teams in the following years, and as a junior became a two-time world champion and a four-time European champion.
“I was the smallest girl on the team, but it was great times,” she said. “At my first junior European championship, I got super good results in figures and I was fourth behind Natalia Ischenko, Daria Iushko [three-time Olympian for Ukraine] and Olga Kuzhela [2008 Olympic gold medalist]. It was my first big achievement!”
Her last competition as a junior national team member was at the European Championships in 2005 in Italy, where she won gold in figures, team and free combination. As a senior, she was nominated as a reserve for the national team, but after a few months of training decided to not continue on.
“It is a great feeling when you compete and people, coaches, athletes are watching you,” she said of representing Russia. “And it puts a lot of pressure, but it also gives us energy to show to everyone that we can do it, and that we are the best.”
Along with her athletic career, she studied at the Russian State University and graduated with a master’s degree in swimming and synchronized swimming training.
Tarasova wasn’t quite done with synchro yet, and decided to pursue her education in the U.S. At first, she was eyeing the Ohio State University’s synchro team, one of the strongest collegiate team in the nation. She took a short English class there to see how she would adapt to the school and the American way of life.
During that time, one of her Russian friend told her about another collegiate synchro team at Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y. After contacting the then-head coach Jill Wright, Tarasova visited the campus and immediately liked it.
“Canisius is a more private school and there are not as many students like at the Ohio State University,” she said. “It was like a city [at Ohio]. I really enjoyed the studying and the small classes at Canisius. If I didn’t understand something, I could ask for extra help and the professors and tutors were always there for us.”
During her time at Canisius College, Tarasova set new records and earned her school’s first national title ever in 2009 in the solo event. She then defended her title in 2010. She also placed second in solo in 2007 and 2008, and in the duet event in 2008, 2009 and 2010.
“It was my little dream,” she said. “I swam for my college, and it was one of the best times. I could study and swim! I finished my career as an athlete when I was 23 years old.” Tarasova graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in communications.
Coming from Russia, she needed a little time to adapt to the American ways of training. In college, she would only train about three hours a day, which was significantly less than the eight to nine hours a day she was put through as a member of the Russian national team. This however suited her, as trainings weren’t as hard and she had plenty of time to focus on her education.
The American synchro style was also very different from Russia’s. She recalled for example that hybrids in the U.S. were a lot shorter but more numerous throughout a routine, while in Russia they were much longer and focused a lot on the height and stability instead.
“My American coach Jill also taught me presentation of the arms,” she said. “Americans, I think, are really into the presentation of the upper body and always have that ‘American smile.’ So, I still learned a lot in the U.S. about my sport.”
Upon graduation, Tarasova moved back to Europe to work for the SC Flös Buchs club in Switzerland for a year. After a short stint in South Africa, she came back to Switzerland, this time with the Synchroverein Bern, and got her coaching career really started there.
She then returned to Moscow and had her son, Tikhon, who is now five years old. While in her hometown, she worked with the Russian federation, took part in some judging clinics, before eventually accepting an offer to coach the Indonesian national team for the 2014-2015 season.
After the 2015 FINA World Championships in Kazan, Russia, Tarasova was contacted by the Hungarian federation, and she gladly accepted the head coach position it was offering her.
“This is my third year here in Hungary and I love it,” she said. “I love to see the progress with the girls. I’m working with all ages, and in all age categories we made a huge step forward.”
The federation had a clear goal in mind for her: to assemble a team for the 2017 FINA World Championships that would be held on home soil in Budapest. The Hungarians had not sent a full team to a world championship since 2003, as it was usually entered only in the solo and duet events.
“It was a challenge,” she said. “When I saw and selected the girls to the national team, I could not imagine what could happen at worlds. They didn’t have a lot of skills, they missed a lot of the basics, the technique wasn’t good… However, the girls were and still are now hard workers, and made progress from competition to competition.”
The Hungarian team slowly but surely improved under Tarasova’s leadership. During her first two years, the free team scores improved by seven points. In Budapest, the free team routine ended up receiving 78.3333 for 16th place, while Szofi Kiss in technical solo recorded the best-ever finish in Hungarian history by landing in 13th with 78.7579. Kiss also placed 15th in free solo, while the technical duet and free duet finished 19th and 20th, respectively.
“It is very difficult to come up the rankings but step by step we will get better and better,” she said. “Now the girls are very professional, they are disciplined and work hard because they know their hard work will pay off.”
The home crowd in Budapest was absolutely delighted by its team’s performance as heard by deafening cheers anytime the swimmers stepped on deck.
“Yes in Budapest, the crowd was great,” she said. “The girls and I never felt this support ever before. For the girls it was so much extra power, they could feel that so many people were there for them in the stands and that everyone is supporting them. So they wanted to show everything and how hard they were working for this.“
As to how she handled the pressure and nerves to deliver something in front of the home crowd, Tarasova was more thrilled than anything, especially for her athletes: “I was not very nervous, it just was very special feelings. I was excited and I wanted the girls to swim their routines at the best level they could. I knew how hard they were working for that.“
The 2018 season was a busy one for the Hungarians, and Tarasova has had her hands full between the 13-15, junior and senior competitions. The squad competed at five FINA World Series competitions in France, Slovakia, Hungary, Spain and Greece. It collected a total of three silver medals and three bronze medals across all events.
The junior roster placed seventh in combo, and 10th in technical and free team at the Jr. European Championships in Finland. It concluded its season at the 2018 FINA Jr. World Championships, hosted in Budapest. The combo finished at a historical 10th place, while the other routines showed promises for potential qualifications to finals in the next few years.
“The season 2018 was very difficult,” admitted Tarasova. “We had a very young team that competed in every category. [But] it was very good, the girls did everything I asked of them, and I’m very happy for them. They are really becoming professional athletes, good teammates, and they went through a lot of things together.”
Some members of the junior team also competed at the COMEN Cup in Spain a few weeks later. With such a young squad and an already grueling season, the Hungarians had decided to really focus on the FINA Jr. World Championships and to not send a full squad to the European Championships in Glasgow. Only Kiss, one of the few senior swimmers on the team, represented the nation there. She placed 13th in free solo and 14th in technical solo.
In 2019, Tarasova plans to take her team through the FINA World Series circuit once again, and also to compete at the FINA World Championships in South Korea.
“We will be better and stronger,” she said. “And hopefully we will move up because my girls are fighters in the sport; they want to show to the world that anything is possible!”