The swimmer is small, and the sea is black and thick. Slowly, as
she wades through its ripples, her face becomes clear. She wears
glasses and has blonde hair. Her movements are smooth, sinewy.
"Accchh! Accchh!" She coughs like a sick dog.
Tammy Crow is walking through the ocean of smoke with a peachy
grin, stopping every so often either to gag or to greet some of
the familiar faces at the Blue Devils Bingo Hall this hot
Tuesday night. At 20, she is one of the Walnut Creek (Calif.)
Aquanuts' top synchronized swimmers, an Olympic hopeful who
trains six to eight hours a day in a sport that stresses the
ability to routinely hold your breath for 30 seconds (sometimes
longer), to be strong and to look and feel vivacious.
All of which makes this scene odd. Near the long table to Crow's
right, eight women are sucking on their Kools and Winstons and
Luckys, loosing toxic fumes strong enough to knock out six
camels and a Marlboro Man. To Crow's left, 12 more people do the
same thing. From the rear an old man rudely barks, "Hey, kid,
lemme buy five flashboards--quick!" The hall is dingy, with
wooden cafeteria tables and a vending machine that offers chips
and candy. Virtually everyone present smokes. Many are
overweight. The faces are wrinkled and pale. It is here, of all
places, that synchronized swimming looks for survival.
Ever since the day in 1978 when the Santa Clara Aquamaids rented
out a small hall for the first bingo game sponsored by
synchronized swimming, the sport hasn't been the same. Bake
sales? Raffles? Swim-a-thons? In northern California, home of
the Santa Clara and Walnut Creek clubs, two of the most
respected synchronized swimming teams in the U.S., bingo is king.
Both organizations, as a matter of what Walnut Creek's Dave
Davis calls "financial necessity," ask parents and/or the
athletes to work a certain number of evenings at the bingo
halls. For nearly three years the Walnut Creek club, which sent
five swimmers to the 1996 Olympics, has had a bingo operation in
a rented hall. The first year it was one night a week, and for
the last two years it has operated two nights a week, taking in
annual gross revenues said to be somewhere in the low six
figures. Santa Clara, four '96 Olympians strong, runs bingo four
nights a week, also in a leased hall, with a gross between
$400,000 and $500,000 a year.
"I know more about bingo than any 36-year-old ever should," says
Gordon Rule, who oversees Santa Clara's operation. "But what
choice do I have? My daughter competes in a great sport that
happens to cost $6,000 a year. Without bingo, what could I do?
What could we all do? Financially it saves us."
This is where the fun starts. There's no question that
synchronized swimming is expensive--coaches' fees, pool time,
costumes and travel can add up to about $600 a month--and most
participants aren't the stereotypically rich 90210 golden girls.
Fund-raising is a way of life for them, and bingo has become the
goose that lays the golden egg. Crow, who lives about 10 miles
from Blue Devils Hall, is one of 10 Aquanuts old enough to work.
(California state law says bingo operators must be 18; in Santa
Clara you have to be 21.) So here she is, roaming through the
smoke, sliding from table to table with $1 gambling cards. It is
not lifestyle choice No. 1, she admits. But there's something
fun about it. On a given night both halls attract more than 200
players, all looking for that big $250-a-game payout. There's
At the front of Blue Devils Hall, Julie Rettberg, 45, pulls
numbered Ping-Pong balls out of a large black machine that blows
the balls up a chute, calling the numbers with a slow, almost
taunting deliberateness. Beee aaaaaaattt. Ennnnnnnnnnnnn
forrrrteee forrrrr. "Some people look like they're going to
explode," she says. "I can't imagine bingo being so important."
Rettberg has been doing this for nearly three years, ever since
her daughter, Lauren, 13, started synchronized swimming. It's
pretty much the same story for all the mothers and fathers here
in place of their too young children. Anne Marie Taylor, a
freelance journalist and mother of a swimmer, walks through the
rows of tables, checking winning cards. Her face says she would
rather be somewhere else. "I don't like the idea of bingo," she
says dryly, while taking a break in a small office off the main
hall. On one wall is a bulletin board filled with articles about
the Walnut Creek club. "What kind of values does this show our
kids--gambling and smoking?" But....
"But my daughter loves the sport. What choice do I have?"
So they persevere. In Santa Clara, where there are 19 bingo
halls within the city limits, the Aquamaids operators strike a
competitive pose. They are there for a purpose. Across San
Francisco Bay in Walnut Creek, the bingo hall has become a sort
of adult fraternity house. One of the regular workers is David
White, the husband of swimmer Laurie McClelland. Some other
workers are parents of swimmers who no longer belong to the
club. The parents show up, share war stories, bond over the
wounds they have suffered in the hall. Rettberg tells of the
night she called the wrong number. "I thought they were all
going to kill me," she says. "People yelling and screaming over
a very innocent mistake." She laughs. "If they win, you're the
best. If they keep losing, nobody wants you around."
Kathy Liccardo, one of the Aquamaids' workers and the mother of
13-year-old swimmer Teresa Liccardo, has nightmares. "I always
dream about bingo," she says. "My worst nightmare was when I
woke up and thought I'd missed bingo. It was awful. Another
dream was that we were paying out dog biscuits instead of money.
The customers weren't all too happy."
For Rule, who by day is the director of operations for a
software recycling company, bingo presents a different kind of
dilemma. "It's tough on the reputation," he says. "I don't want
people to think I'm playing bingo, so I'm careful not to say I'm
going to bingo. I just say I'm going to work for a charity. It
Another bingo caller, one who asks to remain nameless, says he
came back from a family vacation in Ireland four days early to
work the hall. "You can't escape," he says with a shrug.
"There's no way out."
If there is anything to criticize here, it is, as Taylor
suggests, that bingo is addictive gambling. Many of the people
who attend these events spend thousands of dollars a year,
presumably money that should be used for other things.
"Sometimes I wonder why people get into it so hard," says Rule.
"Awhile back a couple of our families went out and played bingo.
It was fun for a while, but to this degree? I don't see it."
"My kids went to Catholic school, and they had bingo there,"
adds Debbie Drexler, the mother of a swimmer. "If it's used for
religious purposes, I guess this is O.K. with me." (While
neither of the two bingo halls serves alcohol, the smoking in
each is intense. And there's a fair amount of cursing.)
"But the people are sooooo nice," says Tuesday Middaugh, 24, a
Santa Clara swimmer who used to work the hall. "I know they're
there to play bingo, but a lot of them are really into
supporting the team. They always want to know how we're doing,
what's going on with the program. They can play bingo anywhere,
but they come to us. I think it's a special relationship."
Middaugh, unlike most synchronized swimmers, had no qualms about
showing up during the summer for a four-hour shift after a hard
day of training. It's the least one can do, she figures, to be
able to compete. And besides, what's a little smoke inhalation
in the name of a fund-raiser?
"It's usually lots of fun," she says. "And even when it's not,
what's the big deal? What's the worst that can happen?"
Bingo dreams, that's what. Dog-biscuit bingo dreams.