Friday, November 7, 2008

Sync or Swim at the 2008 DocFest

I was originally going to write about several films but I wrote so much about Sync or Swim, that I decided to give it a dedicated entry.

In a previous lifetime, I was a competitive swimmer. I swam from ages 7 to 19. The bible for competitive swimmers was Swimming World Magazine. I believe the issue I have in mind was from late 1984 or early 1985. Anyway, the year end issue of Swimming World bestows awards (e.g. Swimmer of the Year). For 1984, the synchronized swimming award went to a young woman named Tracie Ruiz. I had never seen a synchronized swimming event nor had I met a synchronized swimmer. In fact, it's 24 years later and I can claim near complete ignorance of synchronized swimming...except in 1984, Tracie Ruiz had a full page photo spread in Swimming World. I wish I could find that photo but take my word that she was very attractive. As for synchronized swimming, I didn't really think much about the sport before or after seeing Ms. Ruiz in Swimming World. Tracie Ruiz and that comedy skit with Martin Short about men's synchronized swimming are the only things I associate with the sport.

Another interest side note is that one of the top synchronized swim clubs in the nation is the Santa Clara Aquamaids. The Olympic coach and several of the swimmers were associated with Aquamaids and the team trained at the Santa Clara facility. Much of the film takes place in Santa Clara and the Bay Area.

I was somewhere between apathy and mild curiosity before I saw Sync or Swim. The main reason I saw the film was because it fit my schedule on a Tuesday night and it played in the Big Roxie. To be honest, Lucio was the film I preferred to see. Both films played at the same time but Lucio was playing at the Little Roxie. That venue plus sweet memories of Tracie Ruiz was enough to sway me. I'm glad that fate directed to me to Sync or Swim because it was engaging and entertaining movie.

Sync or Swim chronicles the 2004 US Synchronized Swim Team from just before the Olympic Trials to the Athens Olympics. The journey is filled with difficulties. The first thing I found odd was the selection process. At the Trials, each pair competes against each other. The top scoring pair gets a spot on the Olympic team as a duet. Then they select 13 or so individuals (from the losing pairs) on the second day. The selection is based on judged scores for a series of technical movements in the water. Those 13 are eventually whittled down to 8 (plus an alternate) that comprise the "team." Synchro swimming has two events - pairs or duet and team competition so the Olympic team consists of 2 in pairs plus 8 in team competition plus one alternate for a total of 11. In 2004, I think one swimmer competed in pairs and team events so there were only 10.

That method seems strange and cruel. I would think the best way to select an eight-woman team is to have teams of eight compete against each other and the top scoring team makes the Olympic squad. I suspect the reason they don't do that is because some (all?) private teams have difficulty getting eight Olympic caliber swimmers together. So the thinking is to select the eight best individuals and form a team with them. Rather than taking the top 8 scores, they take more swimmers and have two rounds of cuts in the ~20 months between the Trials and the Olympics. Woe are the 5 swimmers cut from the squad after several months of training.

That might elicit sympathy but one would think it makes for good drama in a film. Unfortunately, the swimmers were very friendly towards each other and didn't exhibit ultra-competitiveness that one would imagine or bitchy behavior that frequently occurs when women (or men) are forced to spend long and stressful hours together over a prolonged period. By the end of the film, I was dubious of this harmnony.

Don't think bitchy behavior was missing from the movie though. Head Coach Chris Carver supplied it in spades as she drove her team through a grueling training program and berated her swimmers for their mistakes with pointed comments and sarcasm. If that had been the entire movie, I probably would have enjoyed it...but there was more to come.

One swimmer, Tammy Crow was at the wheel of an SUV when it crashed and killed her boyfriend and a 12-year-old boy in the backseat. They were driving to a ski trip near Yosemite when she lost control and the vehicle crashed into two trees. The accident left Crow with a broken arm. She was subsequently charged with two counts of vehicular manslaughter. She had consumed alcohol a few hours before at a late night party with the team. The first police officer on the accident scene smelled alcohol on her breath. She slept very little before taking the wheel to get her boyfriend and one of his players to a ski trip where the boy's parents were waiting. Witnesses said she was driving too fast for the slick road conditions. Her BAC test results were within legal limits although I found references on the internet to an earlier test that showed alcohol in her system. Crow claims alcohol was not a factor.

This crash occurred in February 2003; prior to the final cuts to establish the team. Putting myself in Crow's shoes, I think I would take myself out of consideration for the Olympics. She was grieving her boyfriend's (fiancĂ©e?) death, she was facing two counts of vehicular manslaughter and she had a broken arm, which meant she couldn’t train in the water. Crow decided to soldier on. This is where I started to take an emotional position in the film and I was decidedly against Ms. Crow.

I'm willing to give her the benefit of the doubt w.r.t. the car accident. She's entitled to it under the Constitution and I'm sure that causing the death of boyfriend and a 12-year-old will haunt her the rest of her life. It was what happened after that turned me against her. First, Coach Carver decided to give Crow an exemption from the first round of cuts. I thought that was incredibly unfair to the other swimmers. Crow's injury basically gave her a free pass.

By the time of final round of cuts, Crow had healed, rehabilitated her arm and trained with the team. She made it past the final round, which I suppose justifies Coach Carver's decision. In the months before the Olympics, media scrutiny on Crow was intense. She pled no contest to the manslaughter charges and the judge deferred sentencing until after the Olympics. Being convicted of felony charges would seem to disqualify someone from the Olympic team. Crow received a special ruling from the USOC or US Synchronized Swimming governing body that allowed her to compete.

So it is clear that Crow was someone the powers at large wanted on the team. The documentary showed Carver cautioning the team to keep their focus despite the media distractions - distractions due solely to media interest in Crow. At that point, I felt Crow was being selfish. I thought she should have resigned for the good of the team. She could have cited the distractions caused by her presence as being detrimental to the team. Instead she continued with the team. The team won a bronze medal so her presence could not have been completely negative. I wonder if the team could have finished higher if the alternate had competed and Crow's distraction was removed from their training process.

Frankly, I thought Crow did not show enough contrition for the deaths she caused and was a bad teammate for not resigning. Of course your teammates are going to support you publicly but you should not put them in that position to start with. One audience member asked Director Cheryl Furjanic why she didn't show any scenes of conflict between the teammates. Furjanic said she witnessed no arguments so she couldn't put any in the film. I can’t help but wonder if there was a confidential team policy to self-censor any arguments or negative comments about Crow when the cameras were rolling.

Although the film was about the team, I think Furjanic unintentionally cast Crow in a negative light. Of course, Crow had a lot to do with the way she was viewed. I don’t think she could have caused the death of two people and be viewed in a positively by most of society or at least by me.

Ultimately, Furjanic’s film succeeded. She kept me interested for the entire film and provoked a strong response. She flashed Tracie Ruiz’s photo in one montage sequence which was nostalgic for me. I just realized that the title of the film was not only a play on words but the homonym title could apply to the entire team or specifically to Crow.

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