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SUNDAY SCENE / DIANE PUCIN

Waters Are Unfamiliar, but Synchro Swans Dive In

March 21, 1999|DIANE PUCIN

You hear about the Synchro Swans, a group of African American girls from southwest Los Angeles who have come together to form a synchronized swimming club. You hear about their precocious routines to funky music, about how the Swans have come to dominate city competitions in barely a year of existence. You hear how they model their performance costumes on Florence Griffith-Joyner's track suits.

And then you hear about their coach, Ymajahi Brooks. You hear she is an accomplished dancer who choreographs these synchro routines in her head, who has been a lifeguard and swim coach, and you expect to find an accomplished woman.

Then you meet Brooks.

And she is a teenager, a 19-year-old college sophomore who lives at home and works four jobs to make ends meet, who tutors kids in math, whose boyfriend is an engineering major and starting outside linebacker on the Cal football team. And you think that you've found Superwoman and she is standing on the edge of a crowded pool at the Rancho Cienega sports complex with 20 voices bubbling up out of the water.

"Ymajahi, Ymajahi, Ymajahi."

The name is pronounced Em-uh-ji. Its owner has a towel wrapped around her waist and must have four pairs of eyes, for she sees everything that is happening around her. And no wonder.

She talks about the three, no four, or maybe it's five times, that she has jumped into the pool to pull out a new member of the club who forgot to learn to swim before she or he--there is one male member--tried to join in the team routines.

Synchronized swimming, an Olympic sport, is often mocked as silly entertainment. It consists of either a single swimmer or a collection of swimmers performing choreographed routines in the water. Great lung capacity is important, for often the only parts of the body above water are legs, feet and arms. But don't underestimate the strength it takes in arms, legs and backs to keep floating for up to four minutes, to keep from having feet never touch the bottom.

And, OK, maybe the participants use lots of hair gel and wear makeup and choose flamboyant swim suits with sequins, sparkles and gauzy material, but until you try it, Keicha Browner says, don't judge it.

Browner is a tall 12-year-old with broad shoulders and long legs. Her father is Keith Browner, a former USC football star and NFL player, so, her mother Charisse Browner says, "Keicha has the athletic genes."

Divali Ramaklawan, an elegant, long-limbed 14-year-old who says her friends have gotten turned on to synchro because rap singers Warren G and Nate Dogg have incorporated synchro routines in their videos, is proud to say that she can now hold her breath 35 seconds, 10 more than when she started, and that someday she, or someone like her, might prove to a sometimes skeptical world that African American girls belong in the sport.

Charisse Browner, who helped organize the Synchro Swans parents' group and who helps with fund-raising, says she sat in a lifeguard class once at which an instructor gave a serious lecture about how the body mass of African Americans would hinder their swimming ability. She says the Swans hear whispers about their music choices.

"It's just mean sometimes," she says.

Luckily, Brooks never heard these things growing up in the neighborhood near Rancho Cienega, where Martin Luther King Drive ends at Rodeo Road near Dorsey High.

Brooks tried lots of sports, she said, but ended up liking swimming the most. As a teenager, she saw a synchro team at another pool and was intrigued. She joined a program herself and became a synchro swimmer. She also eventually became a Los Angeles city lifeguard and began to wonder why there could not be a synchro team at her pool at Rancho Cienega.

Most of the members have also been swim team members somewhere. There are 26 girls and 13-year-old Michael Newton now, ranging in age from 9 to 14. Brooks has given up her own competitive career to become an educated, knowledgeable coach who is also an academic taskmaster.

It is the hope of Brooks that the Synchro Swans will be able, soon, to join the United States Synchronized Swimming organization, which would make them eligible to compete for national titles. This takes money, money for dues, money to enter meets, money to hire a professional choreographer and a technical coach. It is also Brooks' hope to someday take a group of Synchro Swans to an Olympics.

"It can be done," she says. "I expect to do it. I want to do it. But mainly I have always wanted to do something for my community. I want to make a difference. I want kids to remember me."

And if you think that Brooks is hardly more than a kid herself, well, forget it. Ramaklawan says she has learned something from Brooks.

"Maybe I won't be the one to go to the Olympics but somebody from our community will," she says. "And I know I'll have been a part of that by helping our Swans get started. That's what's important, to get this started."

Diane Pucin can be reached at her e-mail address: diane.pucin@latimes.com.

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