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Ready To Dazzle Again

Trade Ruiz-Conforto won gold in 1984, and she's looking to repeat in Seoul

Charlotte Davis has been sitting on a folding chair at the edge of the Bellevue (Wash.) Athletic Club's 50-meter pool for two hours, and her eyes are beginning to glaze over. She is now staring at a foot as it emerges, toes pointed, from the water. The swimmers churning out laps in adjacent lanes don't appear to notice as the foot continues to rise, revealing, at last, an entire leg. A second leg then sloooowly lifts from its horizontal position and lines up with the first one. Davis, 38, stifles a yawn. All this intense concentration is exhausting. Now the legs gradually begin to separate, moving symmetrically until they're in a full-split position.

Finally, after more than a minute underwater, Tracie Ruiz-Conforto, 25, the 1984 Olympic gold medalist in both the solo and duet synchronized swimming events and the U.S. entrant in the solo at the '88 Seoul Games, completes the figure—called a subilarc, open 180 degrees—bobs to the surface of the pool, removes her nose clip and looks inquiringly at her coach.

"O.K., that lift was good," Davis says. "However, there was a slight bobble at the top, and your shoulders rotated a little too much. Let's do it again."

Ruiz-Conforto sinks beneath the surface and repeats the maneuver. It is one of 36 figures—bearing names like Eiffel Tower, albatross, castle and elevator—that she will have to perfect before the Sept. 26 start of the synchronized swimming competition in Seoul. As in figure skating, competitors are judged on required figures, or compulsories, and a choreographed routine; in synchro, the figures and routine account for 55% and 45% of the scoring, respectively. The 36 figures are broken down into six groups of six; the judges then choose one group at random, and those six figures are performed by each competitor.

"Whoever wins figures at Seoul will win the gold medal," Ruiz-Conforto says with a sigh. That's why she spends much of her life upside down in a swimming pool; since coming out of retirement in September 1986, she has devoted three to five hours a day, six days a week, just to figures.

"This is one of the tougher figures," Davis says of the subilarc, open 180, which is assigned a 2.2 degree of difficulty—2.4 being the most difficult. "This is one of the ones that'll separate the men from the boys." In a manner of speaking, of course, since synchro is predominantly a women's sport.

It is also a sport that has been much maligned. Many people seem to think synchro competitors are a bunch of overly made-up twinkies who float around a pool doing easy ballet-type movements. They should think again. While researching a story on Ruiz-Conforto recently, a newspaper reporter watched a videotape of her 3½-minute solo routine. The reporter asked her how deep the pool was. When Ruiz-Conforto told him she was performing in about nine feet of water, he exclaimed, "You mean, you're not touching the bottom of the pool?"

The fact is, synchronized swimming requires grace and endurance, including the ability to hold your breath underwater for long periods of time while executing difficult maneuvers. (When NBC-TV went to Seattle to film a "Profiles" segment last June, Susan Adams wanted to know just how long Ruiz-Conforto could hold hers. Ruiz-Conforto took a stopwatch, sat on the lawn in her backyard and went breathless for two minutes and 25 seconds.)

In training for this demanding sport, Ruiz-Conforto is a perfectionist, but Davis exceeds even her high standards. "My husband says Tracie and I have tunnel vision," says Davis. "In this sport you have to be perfect, or as close to perfect as you can be."

Ruiz-Conforto tries the subilarc, open 180 again and goes into the split. But Davis sees something amiss.

"Your left leg drifted two inches to the left," says Davis, who sometimes videotapes Ruiz-Conforto's figures so that the two of them can watch instant replays of each tiny mistake on a pool-side monitor. But the system is broken this afternoon.

"After your next figure, the dolphin, you'll have completed five figures," says Davis.

"I feel like I've done 10," says the swimmer.

Ruiz-Conforto has been competing in synchro since she was 10 years old, and along with Candy Costie-Burke, her duet partner, she dominated the sport from 1981 to '84. In addition to her two Olympic golds, she has won six national, two Pan Am and four world solo titles. But she decided to hang up her nose clip after L.A.—partly because she felt it was expected of her and partly because she felt it was time to get on with her life.

In June 1985 she married former Penn State linebacker Mike Conforto, who owns four health clubs in and around Seattle, and they settled in Redmond. The two met while Tracie and Candy were training for the '84 Olympics at one of Mike's clubs. Though she stayed in the swim by appearing in Esther Williams-type extravaganzas at Cypress Gardens in Winter Haven, Fla., and the Sea Worlds in San Diego and Orlando, Ruiz-Conforto missed the excitement of competition. Mike encouraged her to make a comeback.

"My first reaction was, No way, it's impossible," she says. "I was afraid I was going to fail. But I kept hearing about what people in synchro were doing. After watching the nationals in '85, I realized I really missed it."

In August 1986 she got up the courage to call Davis, her longtime coach, and say, "I think I want to get back in training." Davis, of the Seattle Aqua Club, was surprised and wouldn't agree to coach her until they talked it over. "I wanted to make sure Tracie was coming back for the right reasons," she says.

"I had won the Olympic gold in solo, and that was really great, but it wasn't satisfying," says Ruiz-Conforto. It takes almost a year to create and perfect a solo routine, but the International Olympic Committee didn't approve the solo event until just two months before the start of the '84 Games. So Ruiz-Conforto, like the other competitors, more or less had to wing it with a new and quickly-created routine. "I just didn't peak for the solo event," she says now. "I didn't really nail it, and that bothered me."

After dispensing with figures, Ruiz-Conforto begins to practice the solo routine. Davis sets up a sound system that includes two speakers, one on the deck and one underwater. Stravinsky's suite from The Firebird suddenly blasts out of the deck speaker. Now Ruiz-Conforto is in her element. As she glides and swoops across the surface of the water, performing triple split crashes, rockets and torpedoes, other swimmers and bystanders stop what they're doing to watch her. This is a star, and the assorted matrons, teenyboppers and middle-aged men who look on know it. Ruiz-Conforto isn't wearing the glittering sequined swimsuit and matching hat she dons for competitions. She isn't even wearing her 50,000-megawatt smile. This is, after all, just practice. Nevertheless, the spectators break into applause when she has finished her routine.

"Is she somebody?" asks one admiring onlooker.

In the two years Ruiz-Conforto was away from her sport, she gained 15 post-Olympic pounds and claims she was in terrible shape. But in September '86, Tracie got back into the pool and also started working out at one of Mike's Pacific Nautilus clubs. After 10 weeks of pumping iron and careful eating, she had dropped the extra pounds, and her body fat was measured at 9%. Mike talked her into entering a bodybuilding contest, and in November she beat 60 other women at the Northwest Natural (meaning no steroids) Bodybuilding Championships in Portland.

Getting ready to compete in synchronized swimming took a bit longer. For one thing, the sport has grown and changed since 1984. Solo routines have become far more athletic; swimmers now get incredible height out of the water. And figures are being done more slowly and precisely. Sections of each are now isolated and judged accordingly. For instance, when a swimmer assumes a front pike position, the judges check to see that she hits a 90-degree angle and also holds the position for the proper amount of time before proceeding to the next maneuver.

"I had to learn all the changes, that was the first step," says Ruiz-Conforto. "But for the first time in my life, I was having trouble concentrating. I had always been known for my mental toughness in figures, but now I could barely do the basics, like a ballet leg. I kind of lost the feel for being underwater and being stationary. I was all over the place. In anything upside down I was really unsteady. But every time I made a little breakthrough, it was really exciting."

During Ruiz-Conforto's two-to three-hour practice of her routine, Davis has been speaking into a tape recorder. Now she climbs down off the lifeguard's stand, from which she watches the routine, walks over to the swimmer and turns on the recorder. Ruiz-Conforto listens attentively. "The first rocket was a little wobbly on the top," says the voice. "And you need to keep your knees together on that move. You're conserving too much space; you need to cover more of the pool. Also, your rocket was very late." Davis snaps off the recorder and leads Ruiz-Conforto through some arm movements. Then, just when Ruiz-Conforto thinks she has heard it all, Davis says, "Oh, yeah," and laughs.

"Oh, no," Ruiz-Conforto says.

"Yes, there's more," says Davis. "Your head was too jerky on that one movement," she tells her, and they both laugh. In spite of the almost nonstop criticism—necessary in a sport that demands such precision of movement—Davis and Ruiz-Conforto get along amazingly well. There's a lot of laughter during practice, and, yes, there is also some praise. After Ruiz-Conforto goes through the routine again, Davis says, "That was much better."

As she got further into her synchro training, Ruiz-Conforto discovered that her 9% body fat count was too low; because muscle is heavier than fat, she sometimes found herself struggling to stay afloat, especially with easier figures such as the dolpholina, in which the swimmer does a graceful circle under the water, lifts a leg and ends up lying on her back on the surface. So she sharply curtailed her weight training and basically started eating more or less whatever she liked until her body fat had increased to 11%.

As for her routine, well, the sort of show-biz performances she had been knocking 'em dead with at Cypress Gardens and Sea World just weren't going to cut it in international competition. She acquired a videotape of the 1986 world championships and watched it over and over. Specifically, Ruiz-Conforto examined the performance of the winner, Carolyn Waldo of Canada, who had won a silver medal in solo at the '84 Games and who will be her main competition at the '88 Games.

"I studied that tape for hundreds of hours before I came back," says Ruiz-Conforto. "I hadn't seen any international competition in two years, and Carolyn was at the top of the world while I was at the bottom. I analyzed every move she made and picked out the things I liked. Then I choreographed different and more spectacular moves. I knew if I was going to beat her, I'd have to do everything 10 times better."

Ruiz-Conforto's comeback has been slow but sure, though perfection eluded her until the U.S. Olympic Trials in Indianapolis in April. At the 1987 worlds in Cairo, her first major international competition since the '84 Games, she was beaten in figures—and for the title—by Waldo. "I had been on top so long that everybody expected me to win," she says. "But then I had to face losing—and I did lose." At the Moscow Invitational in March, Ruiz-Conforto again lost the figures and the overall competition, this time to Kristen Babb of the Walnut Creek (Calif.) Aquanuts.

In both Cairo and Moscow, however, Ruiz-Conforto had won the choreographed portion of the competitions. "Even though I lost at the worlds, I was proud of myself because I'd won the routine," she says. "That meant I was halfway there. People knew I was really back, and that I was going to go for the '88 Olympics."

At the Olympic trials, Ruiz-Conforto really showed she was back when she whipped her competition, mainly Babb, in both the figures and solo routine. In the latter, the judges gave her five 9.9's and two perfect 10's for technical merit. Then came the scores for artistic impression: seven 10's, the best marks any synchro swimmer had received in a major competition since 1971, when Heidi O'Rourke of the U.S. received all 10's—for both technical merit and artistic impression—at the Pan American Games in Cali, Colombia.

Two months later Ruiz-Conforto defeated Waldo at a pre-Olympic meet in Seoul. "After I pulled ahead by 1.7 points in figures, I knew I had won," she says. "I pulled off my cap and I had the hugest smile on my face. Then I went out and won the routine, too."

At 3:30 p.m. Ruiz-Conforto drags herself out of the Bellevue pool and rests for a few moments on the deck. She's exhausted but cheerful.

"My whole goal in coming back was to have this ultimate performance, this ultimate routine," she says. "And if I win the gold medal, too, well, that's my dream. I want to do something that will be remembered for a long, long time."



It surprises some outsiders to learn that synchronized swimmers don't touch bottom.



Artistically, Ruiz-Conforto made a perfect impression at the Olympic trials in April.



Ruiz-Conforto's decision to get back into the swim was a heads-up—mostly—move.



[See caption above.]



Mike urged Tracie to compete again; he's obviously positive about her cooking, too.