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Beijing Bound

Olympic medals aren’t won at the Games—they’re won in training. Just ask the members of the U.S. Synchronized Swimming team at practice in Walnut Creek.


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Photography by Martin Sundberg

Clock’s ticking: It’s mid-November. The opening ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games are just 10 months away, and the United States Synchronized Swimming team is using every second to perfect its routine in the hopes it can bring a medal home. The U.S. team is generally considered to be the fourth best (behind Russia, Japan, and Spain)—which would leave it off the podium— so the pressure is on. With the team training at Heather Farm Park in Walnut Creek, Diablo dove into a day in the life of an Olympic athlete.

The day starts at Path, a Pleasant Hill gym. I walk through the doors at 8 a.m. to find the U.S. Synchronized Swimming team—10 women between the ages of 18 and 26—splayed across the rubber mat floor. Clad in workout attire, chattering about someone’s new hair color and what happened on Survivor the night before, the Olympians seem more like college students in an early morning PE class.

              
   


One of the trainers, Cheryl DeWorken, tells them it’s time to get started, and it becomes obvious that this is much more than a class full of coeds at the school gym. The athletes move smoothly between activities without a single gripe or complaint. They perform a series of typical exercises—lunges, shoulder raises, biceps curls—but often while standing on a tilting platform atop a half medicine ball. DeWorken explains: “We try to mimic things to increase their strength in unstable environments—for the water.” The swimmers look comfortable doing the exercises, but several stumble stepping on or off the awkward apparatus.

In between exercises, members of the team are pulled into the next room for body composition testing. The trainers at Path design a specific workout and nutrition regimen for the swimmers, and this test monitors their body fat percentage to ensure it neither rises too high nor drops too low.

               
                


“Synchronized swimming is an image-conscious sport,” DeWorken tells me. “None of them eat as much as they should. That’s why we comp them.”

The hour-long dry-land training session ends, and the team has a few minutes to drive over to Heather Farm Park and get changed for practice. The Olympic team practices here largely because it is the home of the Walnut Creek Aquanuts, one of the two best synchronized swim teams in the country. (The other is the Santa Clara Aquamaids.) The coach of the Olympic team, Tammy McGregor, who won a gold medal at the 1996 Atlanta Games, swam with the Aquanuts and now coaches them. Four members of the Olympic team, Annabelle Orme, Becky Kim, Jillian Penner, and Kim Probst, are also Aquanuts. Orme, 20, and Kim, 22, grew up in Walnut Creek and joined the team’s youth program around the age of seven; Penner, 20, and Probst, 26, moved in their teens from Seattle and upstate New York, respectively, to join the Aquanuts. Every member of the Olympic team now lives in Walnut Creek or Pleasanton, with the exception of Janet Culp, 25, who just got married and lives in Milpitas.

The swimmers do warm-up laps for about half an hour, and at 10:20 a.m. they move to the deeper diving pool, where they begin to practice maneuvers for their routine. The moves are intense. They suspend their bodies perpendicularly to the surface of the pool, arms swiveling furiously underwater to keep them perfectly level, legs moving surreally across the surface in a V shape reminiscent of migrating geese. They spend an unbelievable amount of time with their heads underwater. Penner tells me she figures she can hold her breath for two to two and a half minutes. “[The coaches] tell us to go under and we stay until they tell us to come up,” she says nonchalantly.

After half an hour of practicing these moves, the swimmers take a short snack break, eating apples and energy bars. They never climb out of the pool. In the small poolside control booth, choreographer Stephan Miermont cranks up the stereo. They will spend the next several hours practicing to Edvin Marton’s remix of the “Godfather” theme, a turbocharged violin composition that they will use for their technical routine—and that will leave its melody tattooed on my brain for days afterward. Christina Jones, 20, an especially spunky member of the team, campaigns for a change: “Because it has a little electric guitar in it, why don’t we use Rage Against the Machine?”

“You’re going for a medal, not a hard rock concert,” Miermont clucks.

The choreographer counts out a beat as the teammates tread water, making a complex set of signals with their hands (the coaches teach the swimmers their routine using hand signals to mimic the leg motions). Their heads go below water again. The surface of the pool seems to boil when their legs chop against it, as if Atlantis were about to rise from the depths. They practice the same move over and over, until eight swimmers are perfectly synchronized (eight women will swim in the team competition, with two alternates).


“We need groundbreaking choreography,” McGregor says. “If you watch the other teams, they follow the same formula, the same recipe, every time. We’re always trying to do something new. It’s a risk, but we’re in a position where that risk can help us.”

This practice focuses on choreography, so Miermont takes the reins. He watches the swimmers’ every move and is quick to bark out criticism.
“Andrea, how many times are you going to do it wrong?” he asks Andrea Nott, 25, after she botches consecutive takes.
“Um, twice,” she says.

 The women swim until nearly 1 p.m. I ask them if they’re sick of the song yet (I already feel as if I’ve heard the song 15 million times). “If we were sick of it now, we’d be in trouble,” says Kate Hooven, 22. “We’re just maniacs like that,” Kim adds as she pushes herself back toward the center of the pool.

I’d been hoping for a lunch break, but that’s clearly not going to happen. The team turns to practicing lift techniques. The swimmers come together below the surface and lift two teammates out of the water, a form reminiscent of a fountain one might see in the garden of a European castle. I’m reminded of something Penner told me earlier. “It’s trying to create a picture.” Indeed.
Now they’re trying a new lift. The team converges underwater, and suddenly Nott and Orme break the surface like a knife. They hold the pose for just a second, until Orme comes crashing down. They’ll have to try it again. And again.

Orme’s repeated collisions with the water serve as a reminder that synchronized swimming isn’t the low-impact sport some may assume. One of the smallest members of the team, Orme is a “flier,” always being lifted or thrown, constantly slamming against the water. She missed several months of practice earlier this year with two bulging discs in her back. “I wasn’t able to go in the water for like two months,” she tells me. “People were like, ‘enjoy your vacation,’ because I literally just sat around for two months at my house. But you don’t enjoy it.”

Nott and Orme eventually get the hang of the new lift, and Orme gets a break as several other team members take a shot at it. Bodies keep tumbling to the water. Giggling is infectious. They’re like kids making a house of cards.

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Just short of 2 p.m., McGregor calls it a day. The team has about 20 minutes to shower and change back into street clothes for a classroom session with performance enhancement expert Duke Zielinski.
In the classroom, the swimmers sit around a table as Zielinski hands out worksheets on which they are to rate their daily levels of energy, focus, health, and emotion. These numbers will be used to fine-tune their training regimen as the Games approach. “Look at the calendar,” Zielinski tells them. “This is what we’ve got left. Ten months to go. Does it create a sense of urgency? I sure in the hell hope so.”
Not a single member of this team has competed in the Olympics before. (Probst, now a team captain, was the last swimmer cut from the 2004 team.) Zielinski stresses the importance of their mental preparation, telling them, “We’re going to take you from rookies to veterans. [When you get to Beijing], it’ll be like you’ve already been at the Olympics for 10 months.”
Zielinski, who will be meeting with the team three days a week until the Olympics, reminds the swimmers that all of their work points toward just seven minutes that they’ll spend in a Chinese pool. “You’re gonna look at each other and say, ‘This is it. This is our last swim.’ ”

“Oh my God, I’m gonna cry,” Orme says.

Zielinski rouses the women from the table and has them stand in a tight circle holding hands. He coaches them on a deep-breathing technique and then has them breathe together as a group. The breathing has a palpable rhythmic quality that I can feel from across the room: inhale, beat, beat, exhale. Inhale, beat, beat, exhale. By the time they reach Beijing, the swimmers will have learned to synchronize their breathing throughout their entire routine.

At the end of the session, they go around the table and share the things they’ve learned. Jones has something of an epiphany. “It sounds kinda stupid,” she says, “but I just realized the Olympics are actually going to happen.”

Practice ends at 3:09 p.m. I ask the women about their evening plans. Several are heading to massage and physical therapy appointments. Some will run errands, do a little shopping. They’ll cook dinner, maybe go to a movie. Many of them will be in bed by 9 p.m. “It’s Friday,” Hooven says, “so maybe I’ll stay up until 10.”

They’re sheepish about being in bed so early on a Friday night. As McGregor told me earlier, “It’s more than a full-time job. You’re basically giving up your life to be on a team.” They practice six days a week, 50 hours a week, and many of them have been training at this level of intensity for years. That doesn’t leave much opportunity for partying. Still, there are few regrets.

“I kind of think what it would be like to go back and relive high school years, just to try on what a normal high school life would be like,” Kim tells me. “But then, this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Anyone would kill for this life, living your dream, and you couldn’t ask for anything more than that.”

That dream could end with 10 women on a podium in China, medals hanging from their necks, the “Star-Spangled Banner” ringing through the stadium around them. After all, this team beat the Russians—the prohibitive favorites for gold—in the free combination event at the FINA World Trophy Cup in Moscow in October 2006.

“We’ve got the team for it, and we’ve got the coaches for it,” Probst says. “We’ve just got to hope it all clicks on game day.”
Clock’s ticking.

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