Synchro Q&A With Candy (Costie) Merrill, 1984 Olympic Gold Medalist

Photo Courtesy: Candy Costie Merrill

By Dax Lowery, Swimming World contributor

Candy Merrill (then known as Candy Costie) helped make Olympic history when she and Tracie Ruiz became the first synchronized swimming duet to win Olympic gold at the 1984 Los Angeles Games. Here she discusses her discovery of the sport, her friendship with her fellow Olympic gold medalist, the legacy of the Olympics and her life today.

Where did you grow up and how did you get started in synchro? Did you play other sports as well? What was it about synchro that kept you in the sport?

I grew up in Seattle, Washington. My mother was a diver and a swimmer, so she had me in the water early on. I learned how to swim at Green Lake and to this day remember how the June air felt so chilly first thing in the morning. But I absolutely loved being in the water! I started on the swim team at the Washington Athletic Club when I was about 8 or 9. I couldn’t stand swim meets – the gun going “bang” just made me crazy for some reason. One day after swim practice I was headed to the locker room and heard music playing from the pool area. I leaned over the balcony and saw these two pretty women standing on the side of the pool, and girls in the water doing all kinds of crazy things to the music. That was it, I was hooked. I told my mother I was going back down to the pool and that she would just have to wait to go home. I introduced myself to Diane Smith and said, “What is this? I want to do that!” From that day on I spent no less than five to seven days a week at and in the pool practicing synchronized swimming. I stayed with the sport because I loved the combination of music, creativity and athleticism.

What was it like in the synchro of your youth? What was the process to join the national team?

Of course our coaches, Charlotte Davis and Gail Brennan, and her sister Diane Smith, experienced the earlier days of synchronized swimming – the pre-Olympic era. Synchronized swimming was VERY different then than it is now; much the same as the evolution in figure skating. Tracie and I were on the cusp of that evolution. In the 1984 Olympic Games, the first ever for synchronized swimming, we were still doing individual stationary figures in competition. This means each team is also judged heavily on the individual performance of each member. It was a lot of pressure, and there was a huge focus on fundamental skills. Personally, I would have preferred to swim under today’s dynamic, splashy format. Unfortunately, I would be about 4 inches too short!

What were your first thoughts once you learned you were going to compete at the Olympics? Was that always a dream?

There was always a lot of talk swirling around about when synchronized swimming would be included in the Olympics as an official sport. The U.S. team had done demonstrations at the Olympics several times, but the rumors about inclusion really started heating up in the early 1980s. I was an Olympic addict – I loved everything about the Olympics and what it stood for. I remember the exact moment the U.S. hockey team won the gold in 1980. I was filled with such an incredible sense of pride and patriotism!  That’s when it crystalized for me; I was determined to get to L.A. and be a part of the movement.

How did you train with Tracie Ruiz for the Olympics — how many days a week? What other major titles/championships did the two of you win together in your career?

I met Tracie Ruiz when we were 9. My family moved from the downtown Seattle area to Bothell, and our teams merged. We started swimming and competing together at the age of 10. We were both extremely competitive but always united in our goals and mission. Pretty much, winning was the thing. We pushed each other every day. We trained almost daily throughout our entire career, sometimes at 4 a.m. and sometimes at 9 p.m. at night. Basically, we trained when other people didn’t need the pool – it helped keep costs down. Because synchronized swimming is such an incredibly difficult sport (think gymnastics in the water, without the ground and no air), the training is always multi-faceted. Daily, we basically did a regular swim workout plus a mix of routine choreography and rehearsal, figures practice, weight training, running, dance and so on. In the four years before the Games (and probably a few before) we trained an average of 8-10 hours a day.

We had a great group of athletes on our team at the Seattle Aqua Club, and they were amazing to train with. They helped us every step of the way. Tracie and I were, and still are, the best of friends, and the fiercest of competitors. It’s what drove us forward every year. We won multiple Junior and National Championships, as well as a silver medal at the World Championships in 1982, a gold medal in the Pan American Games in 1983, and a gold at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.

Tell me about your Olympic experience. What was the Opening Ceremony like? Did you meet other athletes? Did you get to see any other events?

Truly indescribable. Being at the Olympics with athletes from all over the world was the best part by far. You stand together, whether at the Opening Ceremony, or in the food hall, sharing the same goals, the same Olympic ideals. You don’t have to speak the same language; you know that you’re connected by a unique, but common bond – the Olympic Dream. We met so many incredible athletes, and it’s magical when you see them again now and then. I remember seeing swimming gold medalist Rowdy Gaines at a hotel in Manhattan, Kansas. We were both thinking, “Wait, what are you doing here??” We literally almost jumped in the hotel pool to greet each other after so many years. One of my best memories from the Games was meeting Mary Lou Retton, who was just a kid in 1984 – the bubbliest, most sincere person you’d want to know. If she saw that you were steely eyed and headed out the door for competition, she’d yell out well wishes “Good luck! Go get ‘em!! Go USA!!”

Were you nervous before your first Olympic competition? What was Coach Davis like? Were you and Tracie the favorites?

We were, of course, nervous, but I would say more focused and definitely prepared. You’re just in the ZONE – especially if you have a coach like Charlotte Davis. If you’re crying on the way to training because you’re scared of how hard it’s going to be, you can pretty much count on being prepared. We were equal favorites with the Canadians. It was a tough and close competition. I had always been the weak link because of the figures, but again, Coach Davis had me prepared. She told me I would have to “perform a 10 to get a 9,” and that’s basically what I did. Main key to my success: listening to my coach.

What were your thoughts after learning you won gold? What is it like to stand on the podium and hear the National Anthem at the Olympics?

The first thing I tell people about being in the Olympics is that it was such a blessing; a combination of good timing, hard work (extremely hard work) and luck of the draw. But up on the podium, I took it all in and just enjoyed every second. It’s an experience that is beyond compare. And I hadn’t known that my dad, who was very ill at the time, had been flown in just for the finals. He was there waving at us on the podium from the stands. The staff had been prepped and helped direct my attention to where he was standing. That’s probably the memory that stands out the most.

When did you retire from synchro? Did you get into coaching or stay involved in the sport?

I retired from the sport in 1984. I became involved in promoting the sport through speaking engagements and sportscasting. Tracie competed as a soloist in the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, and I did color commentary for NBC. I also started a company shortly after the Olympics, so I didn’t have the capacity to coach. I also knew that I didn’t have what Charlotte had as a coach, and I wasn’t prepared to live up to that standard.

You were named to the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1995. How did you learn about that? What are your thoughts to be so honored?

Of course I was so surprised, and completely honored. Charlotte came with me to the ceremony and we had a blast! Often I don’t feel deserving of these honors, but I try to think back on all the hard work and sacrifices, and remember that it sets an example for future generations of athletes.

What did you do in your post-synchro career?

I have started several companies. However, my husband, Fred, and I have been working in our company, Merrill Companies, together for over 20 years. It’s a commercial real estate firm focused on creating places where people do more than shop and eat; you “experience.” We work together in very much the same way athletic teammates do. Fred was a Big 8 track & field champion for Kansas State. He also played football for the Wildcats. So we work together as if we are on a team, each lending our specific talents to whatever the project demands. Our most recent endeavor is Prairiefire in Kansas City, although we have built projects with our partners in Phoenix, Scottsdale and Washington, D.C. as well.  Prairiefire is made up of boutique shops, restaurants, the Museum at Prairiefire, a natural history museum affiliated with the American Museum of Natural History in New York, living, offices, walking trails and an art gallery. Learn more about it at www.visitprairiefire.com.

 

Where do you keep your gold medal?

I’m not telling – other people’s medals get stolen ALL the time. Let’s just say it’s locked away, but I do bring it out to share with school kids or friends who want to see it.  Thieves think they are getting a big pile of gold. It’s so sad, because you can never get back the Olympic medal that was handed to you on the podium, even if they replace it. That being said, I have let people handle my medal a lot so it’s a little worn around the edges. It doesn’t bother me because I’m so grateful that I’ve been able to share the Olympic dream and my story with so many people.

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Author: Dax Lowery

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Dax Lowery is a page designer for Community Newspaper Holdings (CNHI) and a communications specialist for USA Synchro. A native Texan and a graduate of Louisiana State University, he has assisted the United States Olympic Committee at the 2012 and 2016 Olympic Games.

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