Wednesday, August 25, 2004
ATHENS - Water polo players are wimps. You should see them, practicing at the American College of Greece. Two hours and they're done.
It's hardly easy being in synch like Jasontek
They go back to the Athletes Village, have a little lunch, chat with the mates from Australia and the dudes from Cameroon. They come back to the pool at night, if they don't have a match, and ... the women are still there.
The women they saw in the morning, on the other half of the pool the two teams share, dancing and treading water, pointing their toes in perfect unison, spending half their waking hours underwater and upside down, making sure their fingers are aligned and bent just so. The women never left. Beauty doesn't come naturally unless you're Catherine Zeta-Jones. And Catherine has never, ever worked the way these ladies do.
Becky Jasontek will tell you about it. She is 29 years old, five years removed from a ruptured ovarian cyst that nearly killed her, four years from being an alternate on the 2000 synchronized swimming team at the Sydney Olympics. Being an Olympic alternate is like being the last kid picked for the eighth-grade basketball team.
She went to Sydney and realized how much the sport and the Olympics meant to her. A scheduled retirement went unheeded. She has trained 60 hours a week for the last four years, to arrive at one moment on Thursday evening, when she will perform for the first of two nights as part of the U.S. women's team.
"I've worked 22 years to compete in this pool" is how she puts it.
Worked is the operative word. "Most sports don't train as much as we do. They don't need to," Jasontek says. "They're not trying to match their pinkie fingers for a four-minute routine. We have to have our fingers in the same positions.
"Nothing against the water polo team. They're working really hard, but they get out after two hours. They come back at night and we're still there. They're like, 'You guys are crazy.' "
It's easy to make fun of synchronized swimming. Look, it's the Doublemint Twins! Where do they go pro, Sea World? And come on, what's up with the nose clips?
Then you see them work. You try it yourself, alone of course, so as not to embarrass yourself. Try holding your breath for 30 or 45 seconds at a time, while standing upside down and perfectly straight, treading water and making sure your legs are in perfect unison with seven other people, even though you can't see your legs.
It ain't easy. And anyone willing to put in 60 hours a week for four years, just for eight minutes of spotlight, deserves some sort of medal, no questions asked. "The sport is a lot about mental focus," Jasontek said. "If you can stay mentally into the practice for that long, you definitely have an advantage."
The other day, NBC's Matt Lauer, co-host of the Today show, wandered over to the pool and stood on Becky Jasontek, Mount Notre Dame, Class of 1993. Maybe you saw it. Jasontek was on her back in the water, parallel with the waterline. Other team members were beneath her for support, "egg beater-ing" their legs. Lauer had one foot on Jasontek's stomach, the other on her thighs.
"It wasn't fun," Jasontek says. "But he had really good balance for a non-synchronized swimmer."
On Thursday, the team will perform its technical routine to music from the movie Drumline, and Becky Jasontek's 22 years of striving finally will have its day. It'll take about three and a half minutes.
"My husband and I have this argument," Jasontek says. "The last time (in Sydney) I didn't make it, the first thing I said to him was that I'd disappointed my family. I know they'd say I never disappointed them. But they've supported me my whole life. I really wanted them to see my dream.
"Now I will. They will see my dream."
How many of us can truly say that? About as many, perhaps, as can say they had Matt Lauer stand on them.
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