In the two years Ruiz-Conforto was away from her sport, she gained 15 post-Olympic pounds and claims she was in terrible shape. But in September '86, Tracie got back into the pool and also started working out at one of Mike's Pacific Nautilus clubs. After 10 weeks of pumping iron and careful eating, she had dropped the extra pounds, and her body fat was measured at 9%. Mike talked her into entering a bodybuilding contest, and in November she beat 60 other women at the Northwest Natural (meaning no steroids) Bodybuilding Championships in Portland.
Getting ready to compete in synchronized swimming took a bit longer. For one thing, the sport has grown and changed since 1984. Solo routines have become far more athletic; swimmers now get incredible height out of the water. And figures are being done more slowly and precisely. Sections of each are now isolated and judged accordingly. For instance, when a swimmer assumes a front pike position, the judges check to see that she hits a 90-degree angle and also holds the position for the proper amount of time before proceeding to the next maneuver.
"I had to learn all the changes, that was the first step," says Ruiz-Conforto. "But for the first time in my life, I was having trouble concentrating. I had always been known for my mental toughness in figures, but now I could barely do the basics, like a ballet leg. I kind of lost the feel for being underwater and being stationary. I was all over the place. In anything upside down I was really unsteady. But every time I made a little breakthrough, it was really exciting."
During Ruiz-Conforto's two-to three-hour practice of her routine, Davis has been speaking into a tape recorder. Now she climbs down off the lifeguard's stand, from which she watches the routine, walks over to the swimmer and turns on the recorder. Ruiz-Conforto listens attentively. "The first rocket was a little wobbly on the top," says the voice. "And you need to keep your knees together on that move. You're conserving too much space; you need to cover more of the pool. Also, your rocket was very late." Davis snaps off the recorder and leads Ruiz-Conforto through some arm movements. Then, just when Ruiz-Conforto thinks she has heard it all, Davis says, "Oh, yeah," and laughs.
"Oh, no," Ruiz-Conforto says.
"Yes, there's more," says Davis. "Your head was too jerky on that one movement," she tells her, and they both laugh. In spite of the almost nonstop criticism—necessary in a sport that demands such precision of movement—Davis and Ruiz-Conforto get along amazingly well. There's a lot of laughter during practice, and, yes, there is also some praise. After Ruiz-Conforto goes through the routine again, Davis says, "That was much better."
As she got further into her synchro training, Ruiz-Conforto discovered that her 9% body fat count was too low; because muscle is heavier than fat, she sometimes found herself struggling to stay afloat, especially with easier figures such as the dolpholina, in which the swimmer does a graceful circle under the water, lifts a leg and ends up lying on her back on the surface. So she sharply curtailed her weight training and basically started eating more or less whatever she liked until her body fat had increased to 11%.
As for her routine, well, the sort of show-biz performances she had been knocking 'em dead with at Cypress Gardens and Sea World just weren't going to cut it in international competition. She acquired a videotape of the 1986 world championships and watched it over and over. Specifically, Ruiz-Conforto examined the performance of the winner, Carolyn Waldo of Canada, who had won a silver medal in solo at the '84 Games and who will be her main competition at the '88 Games.
"I studied that tape for hundreds of hours before I came back," says Ruiz-Conforto. "I hadn't seen any international competition in two years, and Carolyn was at the top of the world while I was at the bottom. I analyzed every move she made and picked out the things I liked. Then I choreographed different and more spectacular moves. I knew if I was going to beat her, I'd have to do everything 10 times better."
Ruiz-Conforto's comeback has been slow but sure, though perfection eluded her until the U.S. Olympic Trials in Indianapolis in April. At the 1987 worlds in Cairo, her first major international competition since the '84 Games, she was beaten in figures—and for the title—by Waldo. "I had been on top so long that everybody expected me to win," she says. "But then I had to face losing—and I did lose." At the Moscow Invitational in March, Ruiz-Conforto again lost the figures and the overall competition, this time to Kristen Babb of the Walnut Creek (Calif.) Aquanuts.