Esther Williams was the beginning. There can be no doubt in anyone's mind about that. Water ballet, as synchronized swimming was then known, had been around for years before the Million Dollar Mermaid seductively glided into the public's consciousness, but Esther was the one who made it famous. Thousands of postwar adolescent girls spent countless hours in the water just trying to do her backstroke. No one before or since has done a sexier backstroke than Esther Williams. The M-G-M camera would start with a tight frame of that gloriously smiling face, makeup intact, not a flower-festooned hair out of place, and slowly pan down that great body, lovingly recording the sensuous roll of the shoulder, the arm languidly raised (check the manicure), the hand turned back at the top of the arc, finishing with that little oomph she put into it at the end of each stroke.
But things have changed since Esther's day. Synchronized swimming is going to the Olympic Games in 1984, and not as a mere exhibition sport, which was the case in the past. It will be the real thing. Unfortunately, the International Olympic Committee, in its dubious wisdom, is allowing only the duet event into the Los Angeles Games—not the solo, not the team. The synchro folks aren't complaining, mind you, but if the IOC had green-lighted the eight-swimmer team event, then there would have been a number of places to fight for. As it is, only one duet plus one alternate—a pair and a spare, so to speak—will represent each country.
It's a cool, dry June evening in Colorado Springs. Down in the damp, smelly locker room of the Municipool swim club, the U.S. National synchro team is getting ready to dazzle the locals. For three weeks, the 13 women have spent six hours a day in the water and two hours a day running or doing land drills, plus weight training three times a week. America's top duet is there, of course. Candy Costie, 19, of the Seattle Aqua Club and the University of Arizona, is standing in the middle of the room, trying to boogie her wet body into a dry suit. Over by the sinks and mirrors, Tracie Ruiz, 19, also of the Seattle Aqua Club and the University of Arizona, is suited up but not nearly ready. If she were a racing swimmer, she'd be all set: Put on suit, get in water. But this is synchro and you don't jump in until...
First, comb conditioner through hair. Then dissolve two packets of Knox unflavored gelatin in about half a cup of hot water. Stir well. Comb hair forward (head down) and secure with rubber band, creating a topknot. Rummage around in cosmetics bag and find hair accessory known as "donut." Pull hair through donut and tuck hair around it. Untangle hairnet. Place over donut. Secure with hairpins. Voil√†. Ballet-dancer look. All set? Uh-uh.
August 1, 1982
Dip fingers into now-thickened gelatin glop. Smooth gelatin on hair, starting from hairline and working back to donut. Run comb through glopped hair to ensure against stray wisps escaping mixture. Take wet paper towel and wipe face and neck clean of gelatin. Let hair dry.
Ready? Nope. Get hat, a sparkling creation that matches suit, and pin around donut. Now put on makeup. Waterproof, of course. Eyeliner, eye shadow, mascara, lipstick. Nails? Nails have already been filed, buffed and lacquered. There are only so many hours in a day.
Result? Gorgeous. Except for the noseclip. The clip has been designed so that it's fairly unobtrusive, but it does mar an otherwise perfect facade. Still, you can't avoid the noseclip. Vanity be damned. Who wants water up the nose?
Now for the hard part. Put a smile on your face and keep it there. Make sure it's a real one, the kind that reaches up and shines from your eyes. Now you and your partner go out and do your routine in perfect synchronization with the music and with each other. A piece of gateau, no? No.
Synchronized swimmers may look like cupcakes, but they're tough cookies. Synchro is most often compared with figure skating, gymnastics and ballet. Fair enough. But synchro requires you to hold your breath for 45 seconds while executing a difficult maneuver. In synchro, the athlete is often striving to keep her head underwater. In fact, half of a routine is performed upside down in the pool.
For most competitors, it takes 10 years to become a top-level synchro swimmer. Costie and Ruiz did it in seven. All it took them was six years of getting up at 4 a.m. to practice for two hours before school, plus another hour after school, and, of course, another 10 hours on weekends. It also took a formidable coach, Charlotte Jennings Davis, 32, founder of the Seattle Aqua Club and an accomplished synchro swimmer herself. Costie and Ruiz describe her affectionately as "dingey," "fearsome," "tough" and "smart." She's all of the above. "She gives the impression of being dingey," says Costie, "because she seems so surface and laughs all the time. But underneath, she really knows her stuff. She brought us to the top and I believe she'll keep us there."
Davis is also a master psychologist. "There's a lot of tension in this sport," she says, "because it's judged. You don't feel you have any control. You're thinking, 'Do they like me or not?' The coach gets the jitters probably more than, the swimmers. I get tense, but I hide it as best I can. I use laughter, lots of it, to help relieve the tension."
Dingey or not, Davis has always been the driving force behind Costie and Ruiz. "I sat Candy and Tracie down when they were about 12," she says, "and told them that if they continued at the pace they were going, they'd be national champions." What Davis didn't know was how quickly Costie and Ruiz would excel. The very next year, the two then-13-year-olds flew to Hawaii by themselves and competed in a Western Zone Competition. Davis didn't go because she didn't have the air fare. The girls' parents didn't go because it was all they could do to pay their daughters' expenses. "I still can't believe that our parents let us go alone," says Ruiz. "Can you imagine? Here we were, these two little brats traveling with no chaperone and no coach."
Nobody expected the "brats" to make the finals (seventh place and up), but they did, getting sixth in the duet. Two years later, in 1977, Costie and Ruiz won the duet title at the National Junior Olympics. They won again in '78. In 1979 Ruiz made the first National team ever picked; Costie made the team the following year. By 1981 they were winning everything in sight—the National Team Trials, the Pan Pacifies, then, a few weeks later, the U.S. Senior Nationals, the first time since 1958 for a non-Californian duet.
This year they've fared even better. In March, Costie and Ruiz went to the Moscow Invitational, the first international synchro meet ever held in the Soviet Union, and blew the Russians—and everyone else—out of the water. The Soviets are doing their homework for 1984, and besides the U.S. duet, they also invited the two best Canadians (Penny and Vicky Villagos) and the two best West Germans (Christina Lang and Annetta Foiel). The Soviets, per custom, besieged the U.S. women with questions and requests for demonstrations. "They were hanging off the diving boards," says Candy, "videotaping every move that we made." When Tracie also won the solo, the Soviets stomped, cheered and threw tulips into the pool.
A week later, swimming for the University of Arizona, they took the duet title at the AIAW championships. Last month, at the Senior Nationals in Hilo, Hawaii, they did it again. Their next, and most important, stop is the IV World Swimming Championships at Guayaquil, Ecuador, starting July 29th.
Synchronized swimming is a sport that calls for exact duplication. Swimmers "mirror" each other's movements and try to look as much alike as they can, hence identical suits and hairdos. Not surprisingly, synchro attracts twins, who have an obvious edge, not only because they look alike but also because they tend to think alike.
Costie and Ruiz are both 5'4", but that's where any similarity begins and ends. Costie is blonde and fair-skinned; Ruiz is brown-haired and olive-skinned. Costie is bubbly and enthusiastic and dominates any conversation; Ruiz is quiet and rather shy. "I'm a self-starter socially, but Tracie's not," says Costie. "She has to know a person before she'll open up. If something's wrong, I have to say something or go crazy. Tracie suffers in silence. I'm very up and down. People think I'm the weak link."
"Candy tends to look at things negatively," says Ruiz. "She needs a lot of positive reinforcement. I try to help her as much as I can, because she needs feedback. She doesn't think she's as good as she really is. She puts herself down, but I think her capabilities are unlimited."
The Costie and Ruiz we have just heard from are grown-up, mature 19-year-olds. They are the united, us-against-them, let's-talk-our-differences-out Costie and Ruiz. It wasn't always this way. Candy and Tracie may be a happy duet in synchro, but they've always competed against each other in solo. They swam for rival clubs until those clubs merged into the Seattle Aqua Club when they were 11. They attended rival high schools. "There was rivalry between us," says Costie, "but the duet always seemed to fall into place. I was used to winning solo events until I was 15, then Tracie started beating me. It was very hard for me at first."
"She was so confident when we were little," says Ruiz, "and then I beat her. At first Candy thought it was a mistake. She told me, 'You don't deserve to beat me.' I had to beat her several times before she admitted it wasn't a mistake."
"Well," says Costie, "I decided I could either be a poor second in solo, or I could hold up my end. You can't have two people on top. As long as it's one of us, it's O.K. I am she and she is me."
Ah, but they have traveled a long and difficult trail to reach such insight. At the age of 14, for instance, Costie and Ruiz had a knock-down, drag-out fight when they were vacationing in Hawaii. "The tension was there because our competition with each other was so tight," says Costie. "We were also going through changes, like puberty. I was thinking, 'Am I pretty?' Tracie has an exotic look. I always felt she was prettier."
"When we were 12," says Ruiz, "we seemed to be exactly alike, but by 14 I wanted her to be like me and she wanted me to be like her."
The fight started, as many fights do, over a trivial matter. "I called her a baby," says Costie, "and then we started swearing at each other. She said, 'If I had a gun, I'd shoot you right in the head.' I called her a zit face. That's the worst thing I've ever said to her, and I'll always regret it."
The fight escalated. "I had my hands around her throat," says Costie, "and she was pulling my hair. Then right in the middle of it all, we started laughing. We just cracked up."
It's a clear, sunny day in Tucson, the kind Arizona specializes in. University of Arizona Synchro Coach Kathy Kretschmer is standing at the edge of the pool watching her swimmers practice. In one part of the pool a small forest of legs wave back and forth, practicing the "ballet leg" movement. In another part of the pool, Ruiz and Costie are going over their "figures." Compulsory figures count for a third of the total score of duet, singles and team competition; the other two-thirds is based on the musical "routine." All the figures have names, like flamingo, heron, albatross, barracuda, Eiffel Tower, porpoise, swordfish. Like figure skaters, synchro swimmers must execute the compulsory maneuvers individually and without music. And, as in diving, each figure has a degree of difficulty, with a score ranging from 0 to 10. You can knock the judges dead with your routine, but if you've blown the figures competition, you can kiss winning goodby.
Costie and Ruiz are at Arizona on full athletic scholarships and are majoring in communications and marketing, respectively. "There used to be the feeling," says Kretschmer, "that synchro swimmers didn't go to college. They just stayed at home and swam with their clubs. This was a hometown sport until 1972, when Title IX came in." Kretschmer claims she didn't do any heavy-duty recruiting to get Costie and Ruiz to Arizona. "She called us last," says Costie.
On this pristine day, Kretschmer has decided that Candy and Tracie need to work on sections of their routine. Kretschmer puts their music in the tape deck, and it blares out of the speakers, one by the equipment closet, the other underwater so the swimmers can hear it when they're upside down. Synchro music usually consists of cuts from several numbers, movie scores now being all the rage. The swimmers "write" their routine on land, choreographing their movements to the mood of the music they've chosen, then try it in the pool. Costie and Ruiz' duet routine includes large chunks of the Chariots of Fire score, although by the time they get to Colorado Springs, they'll have trimmed much of it because too many other swimmers have the same music. At Arizona in April, Kretschmer says, "When I hear Chariots of Fire on the radio, I see Candy and Tracie." By the end of June, Ruiz moans, "When I hear Chariots of Fire on the radio, I scream, 'Change the station!' "
Because synchro requires great stamina and lung power, Candy and Tracie swim a lot of underwater laps, train on Universal machines (arm and leg lifts plus sit-ups) and run two miles a day. Synchro rules forbid touching the bottom or sides of the pool during competition. Instead of treading water in the traditional style, synchro swimmers do the "eggbeater" kick, taken from water polo, in which their thighs are perpendicular to their body and spread as wide as possible, to allow room for the constant circular movements of the lower legs. To propel themselves across the surface of the water, they scull with their hands, their arms moving just below the weight they're trying to support. "And they're not just sculling," says Kretschmer. "They must take as much weight upon their bodies as they can. They tighten their stomach and buttocks muscles, plus they tighten the diaphragm area all around to lock their back muscles. If you didn't lock your body, you'd sink."
But seasoned athletes like Costie and Ruiz don't worry about sinking; they worry about syncing—not to mention drowning. It's not unheard of for a competitor to pass out underwater. Says Costie, "There's one hybrid [a combination of a number of basic figures] we do in our duet called a high level twist, where we spin 360 degrees, then do a 180 with a full stop, then another 180 with a full stop between each twist [heads underwater, of course]. Then we tuck up and get ready for the next movement. Sometimes I get a feeling of dizziness and weakness. Although your heart is really pounding and you're dying for air, you have to sit and wait for the music cue that signals your next boost out of the water."
There will be many synchro swimmers holding their breath between now and 1984. Can Costie and Ruiz hold off the competition and stay No. 1? "If we don't make it to the Olympics," says Costie, "I pray to God it's because one of us breaks a leg, and not because we're not good enough. I want to be there so badly. People chink you shouldn't say that. You shouldn't admit you want it that much. But we do. It's not new or exciting for us to win, and we have to keep doing it between now and 1984. We keep hearing from different coaches, 'We can't wait to see your Olympic routine.' They probably expect us to walk on water. The worst part is, we probably will have to walk on water."