Synchronized swimming: a duel of aquatic skills - and smiles

In virtually every other Olympic sport contested here, the happy faces come out after the competition is over. In synchronized swimming, the smiles go on with the suits, so you'd better have a good one. This is why gold medal hopeful Carolyn Waldo spends considerable time practicing her smile, in and out of the pool.

``It looks a little artificial sometimes,'' Canada's premier synchronized swimmer says. ``I've worked a lot on making it look genuine. I almost try to laugh in the water by thinking of funny thoughts.''

This may sound silly, but in ``synchro,'' where competitors wear fancy bathing suits and caps, appearance is important. And perhaps no one makes a more stunning appearance than Waldo's chief rival, American Tracie Ruiz-Conforto, who has come out of retirement in an attempt to retain her Olympic title.

Tracie has a beautiful smile and is so well proportioned that she won a bodybuilding competition in Oregon last year.

``She's like the artist and I'm like the athlete,'' Waldo says. ``Technically, I am stronger than she is. But artistically she's very pleasant to watch in the water.''

Given this fact, Waldo knows she must put on a good show, which means saying ``cheese'' virtually every second her head is above water. It is a tall order, given the strain of performing a long choreographed routine in the solo event Friday (tonight in North America).

Waldo built a slim lead in the compulsory figures, which account for 55 percent of the overall score, but the two are close enough that the order could still change during the closing routines, which are performed to music.

These are what draw the crowds, and remind some of the old swimming movies starring Esther Williams. Tickets for the Olympic final were in heavy demand here, just as they were in 1984, when the sport made its debut in the Games.

Ruiz-Conforto was the big star in Los Angeles, winning the solo and the duet, with partner Candy Costie.

Waldo took the solo silver four years ago and now would like to match her archrival's '84 sweep. In the duet, which concludes Saturday, she and Michelle Cameron stand second after the preliminaries, behind identical twins Karen and Sarah Josephson of the US.

The rivalry between Waldo and Ruiz-Conforto is spiced by the fact that Waldo is the world champion, but Ruiz-Conforto beat Waldo at a pre-Olympic meet here in June.

That result was an important one for the star of the Seattle Aqua Club, who said her weight shot up 15 to 20 pounds and her endurance went ``down the tubes'' after the '84 Olympics.

She may not have remained in competitive trim, but she kept in reasonable shape by doing about 100 shows a year for Sea World and Cypress Gardens.

``That kept me in touch,'' she says. ``If I had never touched the water after '84, I think I might have thought twice about coming back.''

Encouraging her return was her husband of three years, Mike Conforto, a former Penn State linebacker who owns health clubs in the Seattle area. He sensed she had some unfinished business in the sport.

``I won the gold in '84, but I really didn't feel satisfied with my solo routine,'' she explains.

The solo event was approved by Olympic officials only two months before the Games, and Tracie felt she had to ``throw together'' a routine. This time she has given the solo her undivided attention, and is hoping for ``a Brian Boitano type of performance, where I really feel like I nailed it.''

The reference is to the American figure skater, who knocked everyone's socks off in winning the Olympic gold last February. Ironically, that too came down to a US-Canada duel, with Boitano beating out the host nation's Brian Orser for the title.

Interestingly, Waldo has also drawn inspiration from that very same effort.

``Boitano lost a pre-Olympic event, but look how well he did in Calgary,'' she points out.

Both swimmers will be trying to wow the spectators and judges in the finals.

At Los Angeles, Ruiz-Conforto opened her routine by swimming underwater for almost a minute. Though this sequence is shorter this time - about 45 seconds - she considers it a lot more difficult.

``I'm being very explosive, and expending a lot of energy in my legs,'' she says.

Canadian coach Debbie Muir believes Waldo moves more quickly across the water and gets greater height in it. Carolyn also does a ``double vertical,'' in which both legs stick straight up in the air. It is very difficult to balance and hold this position, but Waldo will hold it during a dramatic 4-second pause in the music that occurs near the very end of her program.

``We're really trying to accent that she has done that and nobody else has,'' Muir says.

Being in the water has become second nature to Waldo, 23, and Ruiz-Conforto, 25, both of whom started as synchronized swimmers in their pre-teen years and are now at the peak of their ``game.''

Waldo once had an opportunity to swim with a dolphin, and recalls lying on her back and having the dolphin come right up on her stomach and cuddle for a while. ``Apparently a dolphin has never done that with a stranger,'' she says. ``I was told that it probably sensed I was really accustomed to the water.''

Olympic spectators are surely drawing the same conclusion.

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