INDIANAPOLIS, AUG. 14 -- Tracie Ruiz is the sort of woman you usually find in a tank filled with playful porpoises at Sea World. She has a little starfish cap on her head that bobs back and forth, and every so often her arms and legs come shooting out of the water with a dolphin's grace.
It's called synchronized swimming, and Ruiz is once again the best in the world at it. But she is no longer doing her show in the pool at the local Holiday Inn or amusement park, as she did during a two-year retirement. Instead, the winner of two gold medals at the 1984 Olympic Games is back in international competition.
Thursday night, she won the gold medal at the Pan American Games in the solo event, just another something to go with her 17 international titles and two Sullivan Award nominations. And a return to the Olympics, something she once said she would never even consider, likely will become a reality. She's not exactly Sugar Ray Leonard fighting Marvelous Marvin Hagler, but she is the first woman to attempt a comeback in the sport, at the age of 24.
"Everyone thought I was crazy," she said. "People would say to me, 'You've already attained the ultimate, the Olympic gold medal.' I retired at the top, so why risk it? Well, I'm not afraid to fail. I've failed before. I'm going to work as hard as I can and go for the gold."
Nothing could be better for synchronized swimming, which didn't become an Olympic medal sport until 1984. And the accomplishments of Ruiz, a five-time national champion, have dramatically helped publicize the sport.
Her victories in Los Angeles as a soloist and with partner Candy Costie-Burke were sensational ones that gave the duo and their sport unprecedented attention. For the first time, spectators saw the sport as something other than an obscure and seemingly unathletic little endeavor performed by Esther Williams-type bathing beauties.
"The public has become more aware of the sport since the 1984 Games," she said. "It has usually been associated with Esther Williams, but now it's really coming into its own. We're still short of coaches and clubs, and there is really no place for kids to go and learn. But the time has come for people to become educated."
It's hard to say what exactly drew Ruiz out of retirement. She says she missed the competition. And perhaps she did one too many shows in the aqua cave at Cypress Gardens, Fla., where Esther Williams used to film her movies, or one too many exhibitions at Sea World with dolphins jumping through hoops.
Ruiz had quite a nice life, actually. The number of bookings for her exhibitions and shows were way beyond her expectations after the Olympics, and the performances weren't as silly as they sound. She was introduced everywhere as a gold medalist, and performed her competitive routines.
In 1985, she married Mike Conforto, the owner of a health club chain in Seattle. She took up body building, winning the "Northwest Natural" title in November of 1986. All the while she was putting her money from exhibitions into a trust fund, thereby retaining her amateur eligibility. Not that she was harboring thoughts of a comeback.
"It was way, way in the back of my mind," she said.
But the body building gave her a taste of competition again, and she found she missed her training, even though that entailed getting up at 4 a.m. and jumping into a cold pool.
She had assumed that she couldn't equal the peak she reached in 1984, but the farther away she got from the Games, the more she wondered if there weren't some things she could have done better.
"After the 1984 Games, the farthest thing from my mind was another four years of training," she said. "I wanted to relax and just enjoy the moment. I had been out of the sport two years when I first thought about coming back, and I thought it was impossible."
But with her husband's encouragement, she suddenly returned to the pool. Early this year, she finally made the decision to try a comeback, and one morning she knocked on the door of longtime coach Charlotte Davis, and got back in touch with Costie-Burke, inviting her to come out of retirement, as well. But her former partner said no.
"I tried to talk Candie into coming back, also," Ruiz said. "We even had a meeting about it. She almost did. She had that glimmer in her eye."
Ruiz rapidly found that a comeback was not going to be easy. She was unfamiliar with many of the new routines and moves.
Synchronized swimming is technically a form of water ballet, with new moves invented all the time, like the swordfish and the dolphin twist. Also, although she was in shape physically, she had lost her competitive mindset.
Her first competition was in March, at a qualifying meet for the nationals and U.S. team trials. Ruiz only finished fourth in the figures competition, but managed to win the solo event over younger swimmers and qualify for the nationals.
"I wasn't exactly shaking," she said. "But I wasn't all there. My mind would drift. I learned how important it is for me to be mentally confident. I wasn't risking anything, I was very conservative. Now I'm all there. I'm taking risks and going for it."
Then came the nationals, where she defeated 18-year-old Kristen Babb, the designated ingenue in the sport who was expected to pick up where Ruiz left off.
That victory was perhaps the surest sign that Ruiz was on her way back. She displayed her old form, receiving one perfect score of 10 to win the solo title. It was perhaps her finest moment since 1984.
"I think an athlete puts more emphasis on the effort behind something than the actual accomplishment," Davis said. "Tracie knows that from 1984. It's not the medal so much as what went into it."
But now that Ruiz seems assured of a successful comeback, she will take a different approach than she did in 1984. Then, she did not have time to enjoy the Olympics as much as she would have liked. One change that has come with age is that Ruiz is not in as much of a hurry as she once was.
"I really missed the competition in those two years," she said. "I learned a lot, and I don't take it for granted anymore. When you're actually going through all the competition you don't really think that it's all going to end one day. Once you realize that, you learn to appreciate every moment.
"In 1988, I think I'll really take in the Olympics; 1984 just went so fast."