O Canada wanted so badly to see Carolyn Waldo win last week. Canadians flocked to the Olympic Indoor Swimming Pool to watch the 23-year-old world synchronized swimming champion earn their nation's first gold medal of the Seoul Games—one that wouldn't be repossessed after the drug test. A few wags from the Canadian press suggested calling Waldo's quarry "gold medal 1-A," in memory of Ben Johnson. Then the hard-bitten journalists rooted for Waldo right along with the rest of their countrymen.
Waldo is blonde and bilingual, with a pinched nose that bespeaks 12 years of training and competing in a nose clip. A silver medalist in the Olympic solo competition in 1984, behind Tracie Ruiz-Conforto of the U.S., she began dominating her sport during Ruiz-Conforto's two-year retirement after the Los Angeles Games. The 5'6" Waldo, long-legged and elegant, combines technical precision with the power to rise high in the water. She is a superb athlete.
In Seoul, Waldo hoped not only to win the solo event—and defeat Ruiz-Conforto—but also to take the duet title with partner Michelle Cameron.
It turned out to be no contest. Waldo built a huge 2.517-point lead over Ruiz-Conforto in the compulsory figures—which count for 55% of a swimmer's final score—and thereby all but clinched the solo title before the freestyle competition even started. If synchro weren't such a show biz sport, complete with gelatin-molded hairdos and plastered-on smiles, and if its judging were not so political, it might be worth questioning the curious scoring system: The heavy emphasis on figures frequently robs the event of any drama. "I would pretty much have to drown to lose the gold medal," said Waldo before Friday's solo final.
With Canadians waving the Maple Leaf flag in support, Waldo put in an outstanding freestyle routine to wrap up the gold. Performing to selections from Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty and a theme from the medal ceremonies at the Calgary Winter Games, she did not come up for a breath until she had finished the first 44 seconds of her 3½-minute routine. Before a competition, Waldo is able to place herself into what she calls a doze state, a condition that helps her to conserve oxygen underwater by lowering her pulse rate. It also keeps her mind at ease. "'She does her best when she doesn't think," says her coach, Debbie Muir.
Having beaten Ruiz-Conforto in solo 200.150 to 197.633, Waldo moved on to the duet final on Saturday. Because both Cameron and Waldo scored well on their compulsory figures, there was little chance that the second-place duo, Sarah and Karen Josephson, identical twins from Bristol, Conn., would be able to catch the two Canadians. And indeed, though the Josephsons performed the routine of their lives, earning the highest score of the day, Waldo and Cameron, who also did their best routine ever, received enough points to win, 197.717 to 197.284.
"In a subjective sport like synchronized swimming, the important thing is to go out there and feel good about what you're doing," said Waldo after the duet competition. "It's the performance that counts, not what the judges say."
The judges said Waldo was the best last week, and no one in Seoul could argue. The Canadians at last had an Olympic star to admire.