Sarah Felix and Kimiko "Koko" Urata got started in synchronized swimming for different reasons, but more than five years later the Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School eighth-graders are ready to start the process that could eventually land them on the national team.
When Felix began synchronized swimming 5 1/2 years ago, she'd just seen a demonstration by the Juneau Aurora Knights Synchronized Swim Team.
"I really wanted to do it," Felix said.
That wasn't the case about six months later, when Urata's mother signed her up for lessons.
"My mom made me come to one of the beginner classes. I was so mad at her," Urata said. "Now I can't get rid of it."
A few hours after putting in one final workout at Juneau's Augustus G. Brown Swimming Pool, Felix and Urata caught a plane Tuesday night for Clermont, Fla. The two synchronized swimmers will compete in the duet figures competition at the 2004 Speedo Junior Synchronized Swimming Championships that opens today and continues through Saturday. The meet features about 250 of the nation's top synchro swimmers age 14-18.
Felix and Urata will be taking part in Phase I of a two-year, four-phase process, with Phase IV being the part that decides which swimmers make the U.S. Junior National Synchronized Swim Team for the next two years. While they are in Florida, the two swimmers will get to watch Phase IV, which takes place today.
The Juneau swimmers won't compete until Saturday, when they will perform a compulsory duet routine. The routine requires four sets of figures from a list of 10, but the girls only knew two of the figures before the meet. The other two figures will be drawn from a hat at the competition. The swimmers will be scored on how well they do the mandatory figures and how well they match each other during the routine.
Felix and Urata have made two trips to the Esynchro Age Group Championships national meet before, where about 1,100 swimmers are broken down by age. They did well in that competition, placing sixth in the duet last year in their division, but this meet will be different.
"We really don't know what to expect," Urata said. "We've never done anything like this. This is a lot more serious (than previous meets)."
"Some of the girls are 18, and we just turned 14," Felix said. "This wasn't really a meet I hoped to get first in. I'm looking more for a qualifying score."
The top 50 swimmers will advance to Phase II, and Urata said the Juneau pair hopes it can make the cut. Felix, though, said she's "looking for top 100."
For the two swimmers to be competing at this level is amazing, when you consider the Juneau Aurora Knights haven't had a fulltime coach since Christine Tait moved to Anchorage about four years ago. Former Aurora Knight swimmer Johanna Evans led the team for about a year, but then she left for college.
For the last two or three years, the Juneau swimmers have been coached by their mothers - Karen Lawfer and Chris Urata - who are not experienced synchronized swimmers. The parents would study videotape and read books, then try to pass along the moves they'd learned to the two girls.
"Seattle Synchro has been wonderful to us," said Lawfer, Felix's mom. "Every time we went down (to the Lower 48) for a meet, we'd stop off and work with them and they'd fine-tune the routines. We were just happy to keep up on all the administrative details so they'd be allowed to compete."
In early February, the Aurora Knights finally got a new coach when Jami Eistetter, who used to coach the Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, team, and her husband moved to Juneau. Eistetter's husband is originally from Juneau.
Lawfer said two days after Eistetter arrived in Juneau, she was on a plane to Walnut Creek, Calif., with the two girls to help them at the Western Zone Junior Championships. It was at the Western Zone meet where Felix and Urata posted their qualifying score for this week's meet.
"I thought as soon as Christine quit, I'd quit, too," Felix said. "But things kept working out."
"Jami has definitely made a difference, though," Urata said.
The two swimmers said their training routine puts them in the water about six days a week, with some workouts lasting up to four hours. They also mix in speed swimming workouts with Glacier Swim Club, dry land workouts on elliptical trainers, weightlifting for upper-body strength and a lot of stretching. During routines, the girls could have their faces submerged in the water about two-thirds of the time.
"I don't think people realize how hard synchronized swimming is," Felix said. "Try running a race while holding your breath all the time, and while you're doing the splits."
Charles Bingham can be reached at email@example.com.