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Monday, July 31, 2000

Synchro swimmers give selves dose of reality

  It's so easy to make fun of synchronized swimmers -- you know, with those weird, press-on smiles, surgically implanted nose plugs, splashing around with the Mr. Roboto soundtrack blaring in the background.

 But if you spent some time with the synchro girls, you would realize before the chlorine buzz sets in that these women are real athletes. And in the case of the powerful Canadian national team, they're really good people.

 When Synchro Canada decided to centralize the national A team to the Etobicoke Olympium a couple of years ago, it was decided that a nice gesture would be to affiliate the team with a neighbourhood charity. Of course, the easy way out would have been to sell chocolate-covered bananas or something, but the synchros decided to do something useful. They hooked up with the Women's Habitat, a place for abused women and their children.

 This isn't one of those photo op-type deals in which every once in a while an athlete drops by to dish out meatloaf and lima beans for half an hour and have a picture taken. In fact, requests for a photographer to accompany the swimmers for a visit to the west-end shelter were turned down.

 "That would have been nice," said Janet Walker, the WH executive director. "But there's too much danger involved, a woman or child might be recognized."

 Walker doesn't even want the address of the place published.

 When the swimmers head down to the shelter on Tuesday nights, they do so with the firm understanding that they're entering a world of profound sadness and cruelty -- little children who have been traumatized by violence, women who have been emotionally and physically abused and have nowhere else to go. It's a difficult gig for many of the swimmers, but in the past few months, a real bond has grown between the athletes and the shelter.

 "I think it helps put things in perspective for our athletes," national team manager Erin Woodley said. "Sometimes when our athletes feel stressed out, they go down to the shelter and spend some time with these women and their kids, and they realize, these are real worries."

 "It makes you feel very fortunate," said team veteran Claire Carver-Dias. "All of us on the team come from good, supportive families. We have a lot going for us that these kids we deal with don't have. Being there brings back some balance to our lives (whether) it's just listening to them or letting them tickle us ... I know now how valuable that can be."

 Carver-Dias, 23, said it's difficult to measure the joy of helping to put a smile on the face of a child who spent the past two days crying or mourning in silence.

 THE GLORIOUS SOVIET PEOPLES: The break up of the Soviet Union has made life extremely difficult for Canadian gymnasts, boxers and, especially, wrestlers.

 Prior to the decline of Communism in Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union entered one squad of wrestlers at the Olympics, one guy per weight class. And that, ultimately, meant more room at the Inn for other, less powerful wrestling nations, including Canada. But consider this stat: Of the 160 freestyle wrestlers who have qualified for Sydney Olympics, 66 will compete for countries that were once part of the Soviet Union.

 So now, instead of eight wrestlers from that part of the world competing Down Under, more than one-third of the entries in Sydney will be from former Soviet nations, Russia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Lithuania, Kazakhstan, Krygyzstan, Uzbekistan, Latvia, Belarus, Armenia, Ukraine and Moldova.

 "It's scary," said Greg Mathieu, executive director of the Canadian Amateur Wrestling Association. "They're all major powers in wrestling."

 Because the qualifying standards have become so difficult, second-tier powers like Canada no longer can count on sending a full team to the Games. Only four wrestlers will compete for Canada in Sydney, compared with 12 at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

 WASHED AWAY: Swimming Canada officials are up to their ears in the Shauna Nolden nonsense, and it serves them right. The national governing body of swimming is locked in a fight to keep the Toronto-based coach on the Olympic squad despite the fact both the Canadian Swimming Coaches Association and two other coaches, Linda Kiefer and Lucie Hewitt Henderson, have appealed the appointment. If SC and head coach Dave Johnson hadn't gone out of their way to be politically correct in appointing Nolden, she of no swimmers on the Olympic team, they wouldn't be in this mess. All it does is distract the athletes, who are working so hard. The argument for appointing Nolden to the Sydney-bound squad was that women's coaching desperately needed a boost. It didn't work.