"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 deck-work, 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.