The swimmer is small, and the sea is black and thick. Slowly, as she wades through its ripples, her face becomes clear. She wears glasses and has blonde hair. Her movements are smooth, sinewy. Graceful. Gentle.
"Accchh! Accchh!" She coughs like a sick dog.
Tammy Crow is walking through the ocean of smoke with a peachy grin, stopping every so often either to gag or to greet some of the familiar faces at the Blue Devils Bingo Hall this hot Tuesday night. At 20, she is one of the Walnut Creek ( Calif.) Aquanuts' top synchronized swimmers, an Olympic hopeful who trains six to eight hours a day in a sport that stresses the ability to routinely hold your breath for 30 seconds (sometimes longer), to be strong and to look and feel vivacious.
All of which makes this scene odd. Near the long table to Crow's right, eight women are sucking on their Kools and Winstons and Luckys, loosing toxic fumes strong enough to knock out six camels and a Marlboro Man. To Crow's left, 12 more people do the same thing. From the rear an old man rudely barks, "Hey, kid, lemme buy five flashboards—quick!" The hall is dingy, with wooden cafeteria tables and a vending machine that offers chips and candy. Virtually everyone present smokes. Many are overweight. The faces are wrinkled and pale. It is here, of all places, that synchronized swimming looks for survival.
Ever since the day in 1978 when the Santa Clara Aquamaids rented out a small hall for the first bingo game sponsored by synchronized swimming, the sport hasn't been the same. Bake sales? Raffles? Swim-a-thons? In northern California, home of the Santa Clara and Walnut Creek clubs, two of the most respected synchronized swimming teams in the U.S., bingo is king.
Both organizations, as a matter of what Walnut Creek's Dave Davis calls "financial necessity," ask parents and/or the athletes to work a certain number of evenings at the bingo halls. For nearly three years the Walnut Creek club, which sent five swimmers to the 1996 Olympics, has had a bingo operation in a rented hall. The first year it was one night a week, and for the last two years it has operated two nights a week, taking in annual gross revenues said to be somewhere in the low six figures. Santa Clara, four '96 Olympians strong, runs bingo four nights a week, also in a leased hall, with a gross between $400,000 and $500,000 a year.
"I know more about bingo than any 36-year-old ever should," says Gordon Rule, who oversees Santa Clara's operation. "But what choice do I have? My daughter competes in a great sport that happens to cost $6,000 a year. Without bingo, what could I do? What could we all do? Financially it saves us."
This is where the fun starts. There's no question that synchronized swimming is expensive—coaches' fees, pool time, costumes and travel can add up to about $600 a month—and most participants aren't the stereotypically rich 90210 golden girls. Fund-raising is a way of life for them, and bingo has become the goose that lays the golden egg. Crow, who lives about 10 miles from Blue Devils Hall, is one of 10 Aquanuts old enough to work. ( California state law says bingo operators must be 18; in Santa Clara you have to be 21.) So here she is, roaming through the smoke, sliding from table to table with $1 gambling cards. It is not lifestyle choice No. 1, she admits. But there's something fun about it. On a given night both halls attract more than 200 players, all looking for that big $250-a-game payout. There's excitement, intensity.
At the front of Blue Devils Hall, Julie Rettberg, 45, pulls numbered Ping-Pong balls out of a large black machine that blows the balls up a chute, calling the numbers with a slow, almost taunting deliberateness. Beee aaaaaaattt. Ennnnnnnnnnnnn forrrteee forrrrr. "Some people look like they're going to explode," she says. "I can't imagine bingo being so important."
Rettberg has been doing this for nearly three years, ever since her daughter, Lauren, 13, started synchronized swimming. It's pretty much the same story for all the mothers and fathers here in place of their too young children. Anne Marie Taylor, a freelance journalist and mother of a swimmer, walks through the rows of tables, checking winning cards. Her face says she would rather be somewhere else. "I don't like the idea of bingo," she says dryly, while taking a break in a small office off the main hall. On one wall is a bulletin board filled with articles about the Walnut Creek club. "What kind of values does this show our kids—gambling and smoking?" But....