Learning from the best

Juneau's Aurora Knights practice with an Olympic synchronized swimming gold medalist

Posted: Sunday, January 19, 2003

Visions of Olympic gold danced in the heads of Juneau's fledgling synchronized swimmers Friday evening.

But it was no figment of the imagination - they were able to hold one of the prized medals in the palms of their hands.

Heather Simmons-Carrasco, a member of the gold-medal-winning U.S. synchronized swim team at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, was in Juneau this weekend to work with the small but dedicated Aurora Knights club. And she brought along the medal, kept safely tucked in a lacquered wood case, to share with - and maybe inspire - her pupils.

The magnitude of learning from someone so talented in a town as off-the-beaten-path as Juneau was not lost on the Aurora Knights.

"It's amazing," Koko Urata said of working with Simmons-Carrasco. "It's like, 'why is she here with us?'"

"You'd think an Olympian wouldn't bother with someone like us," Sarah Felix said. "But she's really nice. She gives us pointers."

Felix and Urata, both 13, are the two competitive synchronized swimmers in the Aurora Knights club. Recreational swimmers Lisa Imamura and Vicky Leque also joined in this weekend's workshops.

It's actually the second time Felix and Urata have worked with Simmons-Carrasco. They went to Santa Clara, Calif., to train with her in November, so this weekend's workshops are focusing in part on the development of their skills in the past few months.

Two areas of particular attention this weekend are figures - a set of required elements in competition - and individual routines.

Simmons-Carrasco was brought up in Santa Clara, a town that is arguably the center of synchronized swimming in America. Since 1984, the Santa Clara Aquamaids synchronized swimming club has produced half of America's Olympians in the sport.

Simmons-Carrasco was able to draw from that tradition, and she had the same coach for 18 years. She said she's impressed by small-town swimmers - like Urata and Felix - who pursue their goals without many of the benefits she had.

"I think it's incredible to see anyone try to strive past not having a big club to back them," she said. "This sport takes a lot of dedication and a lot of love, and these two girls show that."

Since winning the gold medal more than six years ago, Simmons-Carrasco has devoted much of her time to coaching, and she said she enjoys passing along the lessons she learned from 18 years of training.

Nationally, the synchronized swimming is still struggling to gain support, Simmons-Carrasco said. There has been a complete turnover of the 1996 gold-medal team, she said, but the new national team is showing promise.

For Felix and Urata, the upcoming season will mark a big change as they move up to a higher age group. The girls will be facing competitors as old as 15 in their meets.

Felix and Urata will compete in Seattle on Feb. 2 as guests at a meet for Washington state teams. On Feb. 15-16, the duo will compete in San Diego at the West Zone Meet, with the scores from that meet being used to qualify for Junior Nationals.

Andrew Krueger can be reached at akrueger@juneauempire.com.

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