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Original Issue

Out of Sync

Buoyed by a judge's scoring blunder, Kristen Babb-Sprague of the U.S. floated to gold in the solo competition

Though it is meant to reflect the very essence of elegance, synchronized swimming was wallowing in a riptide of controversy last week. It involved an absurd snafu within the sport's computerized judging system that cost Canada's Sylvie Frechette, 25, the reigning world champion, the solo gold medal. What happened is this: During a compulsory figure—ironically called an albatross—Frechette collected good marks (9.2 to 9.6) from four of the five judges. The fifth judge, Ana Maria Da Silveira of Brazil, erroneously punched up an inferior 8.7 on her computer. No sooner had Da Silveira hit the number than she tried to have it changed to 9.7. There was a delay. The assistant referee didn't understand Da Silveira's English, and the bad grade wound up registered in the computer totals. Though obviously a mistake, the score was ruled unchangeable by the sport's high priests.

Canadian officials pleaded Frechette's case, to no avail, and she ended the compulsory portion of the competition .251 behind the U.S.'s Kristen Babb-Sprague (above). Later, in the free routine, Frechette won handily, but not by enough to offset the effect of her score in the albatross. This bad luck, coupled with the suicide of her fiancè two weeks before the. Games began, left Frechette reeling. "Why me?" she said to her coach, Julie Sauve, through tears. "Why now?"

As for Babb-Sprague, 24, everything had turned to gold. Five days before the competition started, the deadline for baseball's major league trades passed. That's when Babb-Sprague knew for certain that her husband, Ed Sprague, a catcher for the Toronto Blue Jays—who had won an Olympic gold of his own at the '88 Games in baseball (then an exhibition sport) as a member of the U.S. team—was not going to be traded. "That took a load off my mind," she said. When someone asked Babb-Sprague if she felt her gold was tarnished because of the scoring mistake, she replied, "Absolutely not. I came here and had the greatest performance of my life."