Olympics: Keep your toes crossed

For this pair of medal hopefuls, straight-ahead racing could never compete with the seductive pageantry of water ballet.

Inna Yoffe 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Inna Yoffe 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In the days leading up to Pessah, Anastasia Gloushkov and Inna Yoffe spent their time in Beijing cleaning up the mess inadvertently made at last year's disappointing World Championships. They toured the silk market and walked the crowded streets, learning that reports of the density of the Chinese population were not at all exaggerated, nor those of the density of the smog suffocating it. Finally, they dove into the Water Cube, Beijing's Olympic swimming pool, emerging with an Olympic berth in hand. Alas, when they took off from the Bird's Nest, Beijing's brand-new Olympic stadium, safe in the knowledge that they would come back to roost in three months' time, the rest of the Jewish world was already sitting around the Seder table. But then, Gloushkov and Yoffe knew all too wellwhy this night was different from all other nights. This being an Olympic year, synchronized swimming - at once the most ostentatious and least prestigious of sports - is once again ready to reclaim its share of the generous Olympic spotlight. As they resurface after four years, so do the jokes du jour, like the one which appeared in a recent New York Times piece, mocking its status as a sport. Far from being offended or annoyed, Tatyana Zim, the duo's coach, is inclined to agree with the basic premise. From its early 20th-century roots as water ballet exhibitions performed at world fairs by Johnny Weismuller and clubs of "Modern Mermaids," synchronized swimming has straddled the line between sport and art. Zim knows which side she's on, as she laments the growing trend of judges to reward technique and physical prowess over originality and artistic flair. "Faster, Higher, Stronger" may be the Olympic motto, but Zim was born and raised in Moscow, deeply influenced by its local traditions of music, theater and ballet, and it is to her chagrin that "sports are beating art." Zim traces this trend to the proliferation of professional water ballet shows, such as Cirque du Soleil, yet she swelled with pride when representatives of the famed entertainment empire recently approached "her girls," as she refers to them. WHEN ZIM'S friend invited her to join "these girls who swim with one leg up" some 30 years ago, she denounced it as physically impossible on the grounds of gravity. She quickly gained a sense of humility along with a passion, one which she began to pass on at the ripe young age of 14. Today she sits beside the pool flanked by loudspeakers, one mounted atop bleachers and the other submerged beneath the water, equal parts choreographer and deejay, working on moves that challenge the body no less than they boggle the mind. Today, the day after Pessah, they're trying to perfect one vexing sequence that has been troubling them for two years. Eyes closed, they wave their hands in the manner of blind conductors, hands rehearsing what their legs will soon do. Seconds later, their churning limbs blur, legs appearing to be hands and hands serving as legs, spinning as if seated upside-down on an invisible swivel chair, toes impossibly intertwined, plunging like a furious corkscrew before bursting back to the surface, one leg swinging wildly like a cowboy's lasso. The inevitable question begs - could they corral a medal? Gloushkov and Yoffe purposefully state that they're aiming for the finals, which would place them among the world's top dozen, while they remain steadfast in their refusal to commit to more than that. GLOUSHKOV IS Zim's daughter, but one couldn't tell the difference between her and Yoffe just by watching them during practice. And besides, Zim is tired of flogging a horse which she has long considered dead - as good a reason as any for dropping the subject. For her part, Gloushkov, who has known no other coach than her mother, acknowledges that the mother-daughter dynamic ratchets up the intensity, heightening the highs and lowering the lows. But she, too, quickly warns to steer clear of the clichéd pitfall - maniacally driven mother, unsatisfied with her own achievements, pushing her daughter in hopes of winning vicariously through her. "I didn't choose swimming, swimming chose me," she chuckles at the tired truism, a victim of her circumstances, not her mother's ambition. Considering that her father is a swimming coach, she didn't have much of a choice. Just one, really: swimming or - synchronized swimming. In her pool, the blandness of straight-ahead racing could never compete with the seductive pageantry of water ballet. Yoffe stumbled into her career rather by chance. She considered it no more than a hobby, one that came exceedingly easily to her, until she suddenly found herself on the verge of qualifying for the 2004 Olympics. They did, she and Gloushkov, and they were quite pleased to rank 17th. But soon after she lost her focus and dropped out of the duet. Yet while Gloushkov's determination is as plainly manifest as the freckles that dot her face, Yoffe's callow demeanor belies surprising grit. After losing in internal team competition two years later, Yoffe decided she had enough fun and had had enough of losing. She vowed to rededicate herself and in March reclaimed her spot in the duet. Gloushkov, on the other hand, emerged from last year's setback with a strengthened resolve to go all out in her pursuit of excellence. Ideals and values instilled during a lifetime in sports slip off her tongue like water off a duck's back, and they speak to the totality of her mind-set. She views her sport as an expression of self. It seems quite natural to her that her career in the pool began to flourish just as the pieces began to fall into place in her life as a new immigrant, aged nine when she moved to Israel. Yoffe moved to Israel from Russia when she was five, but she isn't as blase regarding her hobby-cum-career. She knew that there was a social price to be paid for all those hours spent in the pool. As amphibious creatures splitting their time between land and sea, competing in a discipline vacillating between sport and art, one could certainly understand how the duo might be torn between their motherland and the land of their forefathers. Yet they immediately dispel any notion that they long for Russia; it is to Israel they belong, they forcefully assert. Gloushkov and Yoffe have separate sets of friends and they don't fraternize much outside of the pool, yet they serve as proof that symphonic harmony can be achieved even when marching to a different beat, that even the disparate and the divergent can move in Olympic lockstep.