This batter's wife knows a good eggbeater, as well Babb-Sprague had to alter stroke, too

August 03, 1992|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

BARCELONA, Spain -- You've got gel and mousse. You've got music and underwater choreography. You've got a history that stretches back to Esther Williams movies and fast-forwards to a "Saturday Night Live" skit.

If it's the Summer Olympics, then it must be time for more synchronized swimming.

But before dismissing the sport as a made-for-television joke, ask yourself this question: Could you swim upside down under water for 30 seconds, hold your breath, perform splits and rolls, and then come up for air . . . smiling?

No?

Then listen up: Kristen Babb-Sprague of Pleasanton, Calif., might be one of the toughest American Olympic athletes of all. She is 5 feet 10, weighs 127 pounds and has completely realigned her muscle structure in a bid to reduce injury and go for Olympic gold.

Yesterday, she made her debut in the solo preliminaries and was right on schedule to claim a silver, or even a gold, in Thursday's finals.

Babb-Sprague is accustomed to defending herself to critics. She married one, baseball player Ed Sprague of the Toronto Blue Jays.

The swimmer and the ballplayer met at the Pan American Games in Indianapolis.

"He knew about as much about synchro as I knew about baseball, which was nothing," she said. "It was kind of amusing. From his perspective, he was like: 'Come on, you know nothing about baseball?' I first thought baseball was about as much fun as watching paint dry. I can happily say that I actually like the sport now and I know a little bit about it, too."

Can the third baseman appreciate a good eggbeater kick?

"Ed started to think he was a real coach," she said. "He's pretty good, actually. He can spot some real blatant things that maybe sometimes my coaches overlook. He's very funny. He doesn't understand why we have to work out so much."

Of course, Sprague plays a sport in which grown men eat jelly doughnuts, go out for a leisurely two-hour practice, play a nine-inning game, and go home content with a 1-for-3 performance at the plate.

"Baseball players can go out and redeem themselves the next day," she said. "But if we blow it in a meet, that's it. We're finished."

Babb-Sprague began swimming as a 4-year-old, but picked up synchronized full time when she was 12. The reason? Boredom.

"Regular swimming takes a real rare athlete because there is a lot of monotony in it," she said. "We can at least change our routines every year."

She enjoys the creativity of synchronized swimming, of piecing together movements to music.

But a back injury in the summer of 1988 nearly ended Babb-Sprague's career. Doctors told her she might never swim again when fluid built up on either side of her spine, and bone rubbed against bone.

To overcome her problem, she had to refashion her body and remain out of the pool for nine months. Apparently, overdeveloped abdominal muscles placed stress on her back.

"It was a really long road back, and I'm happy to say I don't miss that a bit," she said. "It's really a frustrating time for an athlete, sitting around, letting your muscles atrophy, and then starting all over again. Basically, I had to stop everything and wait before putting the muscle back on my body."

Babb-Sprague won the Goodwill Games solo competition in 1990. She also won a silver medal at the World Aquatic Championships in Perth, Australia, in 1991.

Despite the medals, she remains realistic about the public acceptance of her sport. Few people are likely to remember her medal-winning routine at the Olympics. To most, synchronized swimming remains a "Saturday Night Live" skit.

"That's the most satirical side of our sport," she said. "I don't think people took that seriously. But I think it's hilarious. Still, you have some people who question our sport. The best way for them to get some answers is to come and watch us in person. It's a whole different ballgame."

The slugger's wife is aiming for a gold.

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