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On Top of The World

Multidimensional Tannia Rubiano Hecht has never had it so good

It's 8:50 A.M., and tannia Hecht of bellingham, Wash., is already well into her day. She arose at 6:30, meditated for half an hour and then took a 15-minute speed-walk up and down the steep hill on which her house sits. Having seen her husband. Emil. off to work and her daughter, Mia. 13. off to school, she's now behind the wheel of her blue minivan, driving her six-year-old son. Avram, to kindergarten. Hecht doesn't carry a purse. Everything she needs—cash, house keys, credit cards—is in her Day Manager, a thick, organize-your-life three-ring binder. On this overcast November day. the Day Manager is. as usual, chockablock with appointments.

When she was Tannia Rubiano. SI's 1971 swimsuit cover girl, she didn't need a Day Manager. She was just a carefree University of Miami student who did some modeling on the side to help pay for her education. But marriage and motherhood and commitments and committees have changed all that. "My life got so complicated, it was either get a Day Manager or take memory pills," Hecht says.

Hecht is no longer the voluptuous young woman who posed on the beaches of the Dominican Republic. Her hair is shorter, and she's in much better shape. "Back then, sports weren't a part of my life," she says. "They are now."

When she married Emil Hecht in 1971, he told her how much sports meant to him. Says Tannia. "He said. 'Babe, join me or stay home weekends.' " She joined him with a vengeance. By 1975, when she and Emil moved to Bellingham, his hometown, she had learned to sail, ski, windsurf. rock climb and scuba dive. She also pumps iron at a health club, and last March, for her 40th birthday, Emil took her mountain climbing in Nepal.

Hecht looks in the rearview mirror of the minivan and speaks to Avram. who's in the backseat: "Avi, I didn't hear your seat-belt buckle click." A click comes from the backseat.

After dropping Avram at school, Hecht heads for a yoga class, and by 9:30 she's sitting cross-legged on the floor in a restored Victorian building, her eyes closed, listening to the instructor intone, "Let go of any tightness in the neck and shoulders, let go of every sense of competition and achievement. There's no competition, there's only loving yourself." For an hour the class of six women goes through deep-breathing and stretching exercises. It's soooo relaxing.

Which is why, in spite of that jam-packed Day Manager. Hecht never appears frazzled. "The yoga principle is that breath and stress can't live in the same body," she says. "If you can just remember to stop and take a few deep breaths, it immediately eliminates any stress in your system."

Next on Hecht's schedule is a luncheon to raise money for the restoration of an old theater in Bellingham. She drives home, changes clothes, gets back in the minivan. stops at a bicycle shop to inspect a bike-racing outfit she'll be modeling for a charity fashion show benefiting St. Joseph Hospital the following week and arrives at the Mount Baker Theater at noon, exactly on time. An hour later she's off again, to Emil's office.

Emil is a plastic surgeon as well as an ear, nose and throat man. She's going to consult with him about a patient she'll visit later in the day. Tannia has a master's in speech pathology and often works with patients referred to her by her husband.

Hecht's interest in speech dates back to her adolescence. She spent the first 12 years of her life in Cartagena, Colombia. It was a time of particular political unrest in Colombia, and she remembers her stepfather and her mother rushing around to get visas to flee the country because "armed squatters," as she calls them, were encroaching on her stepfather's ranch. In 1960 she was uprooted from familiar surroundings and set down in Miami. "I felt like an alien," says Hecht, who became a U.S. citizen in 1969. "There weren't any Hispanics in the neighborhood we lived in, and nobody spoke Spanish in the parochial school I went to." She learned to speak English in six months, but she has never forgotten how an inability to communicate can lead to feelings of isolation.

She leaves Emil's office and drives to a women's clothing store, where she tries on five or six outfits and discusses accessories with the coordinator of the St. Joseph fashion show. Few people know that she once appeared on an SI swimsuit cover. "It's not exactly the sort of thing you bring up in conversation," Hecht says. "What am I supposed to do, say, 'Guess what, I was on SI's cover'? But I still love working with clothes and fashion."

Hecht does about six to eight shows a year, for local boutiques and charities, and people frequently tell her she ought to go to Seattle, a two-hour drive to the south, get an agent and go big-time. "It's tempting," she says. "But then I think, What's that going to accomplish? A little fame and a little fortune and a lot of stress. It's better to go for a walk." Then she laughs.

She's smiling as she walks into a room at St. Luke's General Hospital to visit a patient on whom Emil performed surgery a week earlier. He had removed nodules that had grown on the patient's vocal chords. Tannia stands beside the man's bed and quietly describes to him how he can avoid further damaging his voice. "Try not to talk above background noise," she says. "Don't talk to your wife over the noise of the TV or dishwasher."

He also must not clear his throat. "When you speak, your vocal chords are like seaweed, gently undulating, barely brushing each other," Hecht tells him. "But when you clear your throat harshly, your vocal chords are taut and they hit each other at 60 miles an hour." She makes a big impression on the patient, who swears to keep quiet until he consults with her again.

It's 4:15 p.m., and she decides to look in on Avi's taekwando school, where she slips into the back of the room and watches him work out with a dozen other children. Avi has a yellow belt, and he kicks his legs high and punches the air with great enthusiasm. "He likes it when I come watch him," she says.

As busy as this day has been, it pales in comparison with the schedule Hecht used to keep. A year and a half ago she decided she was spreading herself too thin, so she gave up several activities. A convert to Judaism, Emil's religion, she elected to stay on the board of the school at their synagogue but curtailed her work for Hadassah. She still donates time and money to Planned Parenthood, but she has scaled down her participation in the St. Joseph Hospital Auxiliary. "I told myself I can't be everything to everybody," she says. "My family demands a lot of time, and I see how quickly childhood goes. Those days are so precious, when your kids are learning and becoming aware of who they are. You have so much impact on them then."

At 4:50 p.m. Hecht is curled up on the huge U-shaped leather sofa in her living room. The house is magnificent, all glass and cedar, perched high overlooking Chuckanut Bay. She designed most of the house herself, with input from Emil and an architect. The Hechts have lived there for two years now. "When we first moved to Bellingham, I felt like a transplanted palm tree in the land of the cedars," she says. "It was a difficult adjustment. It wasn't the heat I missed, it was the light. In this house I provided myself with as much light as I could. That's why there are 30-odd skylights."

Until recently Hecht didn't even own a copy of the SI that featured her on the cover. Then an old friend gave her his copy. As she looks at it, she says, "God, I was so fat then. I weighed 10 pounds less, but I didn't have any muscle tone." She does now, and she looks better than she ever did, a perfect size 8.

As Hecht studies that 1971 cover, she says, "So I don't look 22 anymore, but I like myself a lot better than I did when I was 22. I was confused then; now I'm happy. All my needs are being met and I have a loving husband and family and wonderful friends.

"The aging thing is something every woman has to face. At some point, I remember thinking, This is a no-win situation. But you can look good for your age. So I do what I can to stay fit and healthy. Beyond that, I just accept it."

She checks the Day Manager: dinner tonight with friends. She has an hour to get dressed.