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"What is that?" asks the lifeguard upon arriving at his pool to
find a woolly male, nose-clipped and in obvious nasal distress,
cutting moves behind the 1996 U.S. Olympic synchronized swimming
team. I am in the water with permission from team coaches Chris
Carver and Gail Emery, who gave me the go-ahead because last
year I swam the English Channel. Also backing me up were four
years of NCAA Division I racing and three on a worldwide
marathon swim circuit. When synchro swimmers describe what six
hours of immersion does to the skin, I am right there with them.

This morning in the San Jose State pool, as the Olympians focus
on minutiae such as wrist angle and head tilt, Mary Wodka, a
21-year-old pre-Olympic alternate, teaches me the Heron. This
requires that you float upside down while pushing one leg three
quarters above the surface and bending the other so its foot
rests near your opposite knee. If you point both legs skyward,
you're doing the more difficult Vertical.

"Scull hard, like you're vigorously polishing a silver platter
with both hands," Wodka says. A synchro scull is an underwater
hand sweep at the speed of Fred Flintstone's blurred feet. Angle
and torque count for everything.

Synchro divas make it look effortless. In fact, getting upside
down should be its own sport. As I scull, I bend too far forward
or too far back. I'm supposed to find a vertical line by using a
pool wall to orient myself, but the walls, the pool bottom and
the sky are uniformly blue. I try kicking into position and get
caught in unstoppable backward somersaults.

The women on the Olympic team can hold their breath for three
minutes while immobile and for more than one minute during
rigorous sequences called hybrids. I top out at 20 seconds
merely sculling.

When I achieve a crude semblance of verticality, I sink. I scull
so hard I could polish all the silver platters in the galley of
the Titanic. I sink anyway, glub, glub. After an hour my
oxygen-empty head explodes, my hands cramp, my shoulders burn.
Twice I quit in midscull and crash headfirst against the bottom
of the pool. After two hours I haven't even sustained my toes
above the water. "Need a rest, huh?" Wodka asks.

"I need dignity."

I take a recuperative timeout, then join the team 20 feet back.

Nine broad backs rise until the bottom curves of their shoulder
blades become visible. Arms rise rigidly over the water. When
the music begins, we draw imaginary violin bows across imaginary
strings, passionately snap our heads left and tango
eggbeater-style across the pool.

My grand finale is a half lap of ballet leg. This involves
motoring on your back while sculling from the hips and holding
one leg aloft at a 90-degree angle. My leg barely clears the
water before my body folds like a pocketknife. Glub, glub.

The women have four more hours of water practice, choreographed
deckwork, plyometrics and weight training. Six days a week they
hit the pool at 7 a.m. and leave when the evening sun no longer
shines off their zinc-oxide-coated faces.

"I dream about an enlightened swim, one where being in the water
feels like flying," says Becky Dyroen-Lancer, 25, the world's
best synchro swimmer.

Late in the afternoon Dyroen-Lancer's dream of flight briefly
comes true. From underwater, two back-flipping bodies soar into
the air in opposite directions in perfect synchronization. As
they sink from sight, a third woman, her arms thrown back as if
to accept the world's adulation, emerges from the chlorinated
foam like Venus. She rises until only her feet are still
submerged. It's beauty beyond metaphor. The women tread
serenely, and around them the rippling water turns golden in the
slanting sun.

I'm dying to leap up, to stand and clap and whistle. Problem is,
my shoulders hurt too much to move.

P.H. Mullen Jr. lives in San Francisco. This is his first story
for Sports Illustrated.

COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK Mullen could get himself upside down as well as vertical, but not for very long.[P.H. Mullen Jr. and two women floating upside-down in swimming pool]