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BECKY DYROEN-LANCER // Heart & Soul

No doubt about it, the woman has heart. Better than most.

Becky Dyroen-Lancer was born with a faulty one. And that was the least of her problems.

She was a blue baby, as blue as the water she has made her second home. For the first four minutes of her life she wasn't breathing.

"Holding my breath," she said, able to laugh at it now. "Not bad training for someone who spends this much time under water."

Paula Dyroen had gone through 24 hours of difficult labor. Becky's umbilical cord was twisted. She wasn't getting any oxygen. Paula Dyroen is a registered nurse. She knew the ramifications of a baby not breathing.

"I didn't hear a sound from her," she said. "After two or three minutes I didn't think she had a chance."

Nurses began "bag-breathing" her, placing a mask over her tiny face and forcing oxygen into her empty lungs. It was the longest four minutes of her mother's life before she heard the sweetest sound _ Becky bawling.

Even then, the fear didn't totally subside. "I still thought there could be damage."

There was _ but not from the breathless birth.

After a few hours in an incubator, Becky was checked out.

The doctor discovered a hole in her heart. But Lee and Paula Dyroen's baby girl couldn't undergo the major open-heart surgery she needed. Not then. Medical science wasn't quite ready for it.

Becky Dyroen would have to grow before surgeons could go in and fix the offending artery. Keep a close eye on her, the doctors told her parents.

A little stronger

For five years her heart had to work twice as hard as a normal one to pump the blood, "just wearing itself out day by day," she said. "They couldn't do anything about it until I was 5."

"I'm pretty sure I wouldn't be alive today _ or at least not too much longer _ if I hadn't had the surgery. My great-grandmother had the same problem. She didn't have an operation and she died in her 20s. Regardless, I know I wouldn't be in sports without the surgery."

Becky was a typically active little girl. To look at her you'd never have known there was anything wrong. But every time she got a cold or a cough, it'd be a little worse than normal. And the Dyroens would worry.

They are a Christian family. They spent a lot of time praying for their daughter. When she was 5, a pediatric surgeon from Stanford mended the hole in her heart.

You can't see the scar now. Not even when Dyroen-Lancer wears a bikini.

The upside to the first five years of her life, doctors said, is that because her heart had to work so much harder than a normal child's, it was that much stronger both before and after surgery. "They told me I had a better heart and it'd always be a little stronger," she said.

A lot of naps

Becky Dyroen didn't just go bounding out into the world after the operation. There was recuperation, a week in the hospital, a month before she regained her full strength.

"Do you know how long a month is to a 5-year-old?" she asked.

Her paternal grandmother came to the hospital four or five days after the operation. "She walked in expecting to see her poor little granddaughter," Lee Dyroen said, "and she went flying past us on her tricycle."

Back home, she was supposed to rest. She wanted to go outside and play. She could see and hear her friends in the street, at the park, but she was housebound. "I got tired real easy," Dyroen-Lancer said. "I had to take naps. A lot of naps. I hated

naps."

Before the operation, one of her favorite pastimes in the house was climbing four steps and leaping back to the floor. No more; not for a few months, the doctors told her mother. No more, her mother told her. Okay, she said. "So she did it from three steps up," Paula said.

After the operation, as before, she was treated like any other kid by her peers and, more important, by her parents. "Sometimes they can be overprotective and that can make a kid feel different," Dyroen-Lancer said. "Mine treated me completely normal. I think that was a big help in my development in athletics."

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Busby and Esther

Remember Busby Berkeley? He arrived in Hollywood nearly 60 years ago and pretty soon MGM was churning out aquatic spectaculars _ bathing beauties swimming in time with the music, often with Esther Williams as the centerpiece.

Voila! The American popularization of sychronized swimming.

It already had been around as a competitive sport for nearly four decades before Berkeley and showman Billy Rose made it an art form. Paula Dyroen was a synchronized swimmer, although not a million-dollar mermaid like Williams. She did it in high school in the '60s, never took it any further.

"Back then, you didn't ask your parents to haul you all over the place to practices and meets," Paula Dyroen said. "And even if I had, I don't think they would've."

She hasn't strayed all that far from synchro. She manufactures the sports' swimsuits and designed the suits the U.S. team will wear.

Her daughter didn't know her mother had been in synchro when a grade-school friend introduced her to it. When she got hooked, she really didn't have to ask. Her parents were prepared to haul her all over the place to practices and meets.

Early in her career, Dyroen-Lancer said, she looked like anything but a champion. She was a gangly kid. She likened herself to a newborn colt that struggles to stand, then becomes a thoroughbred.

Now she is the unquestioned star of the 1996 U.S. Olympic Synchronized Swimming Team. But the solo and duet competition shehas dominated are gone now, replaced in the Olympics by one event _ team competition, eight women performing a miniature version of a Busby Berkeley musical.

"Everything happens for a reason," Dyroen-Lancer said. "There's a reason that I'm not swimming all three events, that all three are not in the Olympics. I've accomplished as much as I can in the sport. I'm really satisfied with my career. I don't feel less satisfied that solo and duet are not in the Olympics."

During the competition, there will be times when some of the swimmers will be carried aloft, above the water. "They go up in the lifts," she said, "because they're smaller and lighter. The rest of us, the taller people, the stronger ones, we're under the water."

Dyroen-Lancer and her sister, Suzannah Bianco, will be beneath the surface. "You know how there's the swimmer riding the whales at those (theme) parks?" Dyroen-Lander said. "Well, we're Shamu. They're just coming along for the ride."

Meet the athlete

BORN: Feb.19, 1971, San Jose, Calif.

RESIDENCE: Campbell, Calif.

HEIGHT: 5-8{. WEIGHT: 128.

SCHOOL: De Anza College, Cupertino, Calif.

PERSONAL BESTS: Solo, duet, team and figures champion in 1995 World Cup, U.S. Nationals and Pan Am Games, '94 national and world championships and '93 World Cup; has won nine consecutive grand slams since '92; winner of the '95 FINA Prize, the highest award given to a member of the aquatics community.

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