Esther Williams was the beginning. There can be no doubt in anyone's mind about that. Water ballet, as synchronized swimming was then known, had been around for years before the Million Dollar Mermaid seductively glided into the public's consciousness, but Esther was the one who made it famous. Thousands of postwar adolescent girls spent countless hours in the water just trying to do her backstroke. No one before or since has done a sexier backstroke than Esther Williams. The M-G-M camera would start with a tight frame of that gloriously smiling face, makeup intact, not a flower-festooned hair out of place, and slowly pan down that great body, lovingly recording the sensuous roll of the shoulder, the arm languidly raised (check the manicure), the hand turned back at the top of the arc, finishing with that little oomph she put into it at the end of each stroke.
But things have changed since Esther's day. Synchronized swimming is going to the Olympic Games in 1984, and not as a mere exhibition sport, which was the case in the past. It will be the real thing. Unfortunately, the International Olympic Committee, in its dubious wisdom, is allowing only the duet event into the Los Angeles Games—not the solo, not the team. The synchro folks aren't complaining, mind you, but if the IOC had green-lighted the eight-swimmer team event, then there would have been a number of places to fight for. As it is, only one duet plus one alternate—a pair and a spare, so to speak—will represent each country.
It's a cool, dry June evening in Colorado Springs. Down in the damp, smelly locker room of the Municipool swim club, the U.S. National synchro team is getting ready to dazzle the locals. For three weeks, the 13 women have spent six hours a day in the water and two hours a day running or doing land drills, plus weight training three times a week. America's top duet is there, of course. Candy Costie, 19, of the Seattle Aqua Club and the University of Arizona, is standing in the middle of the room, trying to boogie her wet body into a dry suit. Over by the sinks and mirrors, Tracie Ruiz, 19, also of the Seattle Aqua Club and the University of Arizona, is suited up but not nearly ready. If she were a racing swimmer, she'd be all set: Put on suit, get in water. But this is synchro and you don't jump in until...
First, comb conditioner through hair. Then dissolve two packets of Knox unflavored gelatin in about half a cup of hot water. Stir well. Comb hair forward (head down) and secure with rubber band, creating a topknot. Rummage around in cosmetics bag and find hair accessory known as "donut." Pull hair through donut and tuck hair around it. Untangle hairnet. Place over donut. Secure with hairpins. Voil�. Ballet-dancer look. All set? Uh-uh.
Dip fingers into now-thickened gelatin glop. Smooth gelatin on hair, starting from hairline and working back to donut. Run comb through glopped hair to ensure against stray wisps escaping mixture. Take wet paper towel and wipe face and neck clean of gelatin. Let hair dry.
Ready? Nope. Get hat, a sparkling creation that matches suit, and pin around donut. Now put on makeup. Waterproof, of course. Eyeliner, eye shadow, mascara, lipstick. Nails? Nails have already been filed, buffed and lacquered. There are only so many hours in a day.
Result? Gorgeous. Except for the noseclip. The clip has been designed so that it's fairly unobtrusive, but it does mar an otherwise perfect facade. Still, you can't avoid the noseclip. Vanity be damned. Who wants water up the nose?
Now for the hard part. Put a smile on your face and keep it there. Make sure it's a real one, the kind that reaches up and shines from your eyes. Now you and your partner go out and do your routine in perfect synchronization with the music and with each other. A piece of gateau, no? No.
Synchronized swimmers may look like cupcakes, but they're tough cookies. Synchro is most often compared with figure skating, gymnastics and ballet. Fair enough. But synchro requires you to hold your breath for 45 seconds while executing a difficult maneuver. In synchro, the athlete is often striving to keep her head underwater. In fact, half of a routine is performed upside down in the pool.
For most competitors, it takes 10 years to become a top-level synchro swimmer. Costie and Ruiz did it in seven. All it took them was six years of getting up at 4 a.m. to practice for two hours before school, plus another hour after school, and, of course, another 10 hours on weekends. It also took a formidable coach, Charlotte Jennings Davis, 32, founder of the Seattle Aqua Club and an accomplished synchro swimmer herself. Costie and Ruiz describe her affectionately as "dingey," "fearsome," "tough" and "smart." She's all of the above. "She gives the impression of being dingey," says Costie, "because she seems so surface and laughs all the time. But underneath, she really knows her stuff. She brought us to the top and I believe she'll keep us there."