1,700 swimmers invade Suncoast for international competition

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SARASOTA - "Hello!" says the reporter. "Hi!" reply the synchronized swimmers, in unison. And that's about as far as the interview goes in English, because Saya and Maya Kimura come from Japan.

They are two of the 1,700 swimmers here over the next two weeks for the Pan American Championships. More than a few others will serve as translators. "Half of the meet is people coming in from other countries," says meet director Rick Walker.

The competition at the Sarasota YMCA at Potter Park features both racing and synchronized swimming. The latter might look dainty, but hosting its competition might show the strength of the Sarasota sports scene.

"Sarasota was bidding on this event against countries," says Virginia Haley, President of Visit Sarasota County. "Our small community was against the country of Columbia to win this bid."

The Sarasota Y already had a pool built by Myrtha Pools, the Sarasota company that built pools for several Olympics, incluing the London games last year. Money from Visit Sarasota County matched private funds to renovate the Y's locker rooms, and add Myrtha-built starting blocks. "We think we have the best pool in the state of Florida," Walker says.

The Kimuras, identical twins who have competed for Japan's national team, will use this event as practice for the World Masters Championship next year in Canada. "In Japan, not many pools are in the nature like this: Open," they say through a translator.

Visit Sarasota County has its sights set on bigger international events, too, such as the World Rowing Championships that Nathan Benderson Park has bid for. The water in the Potter Park Y pool is a proving ground. "This is very much a proving ground," Haley agrees.

One that already proves its worth. "I'm going to be here a month," says Lou Anne McKeefery, who came with a synchronized swimming team of nine people from California. They won't all stay for a month, but at least through Monday, spending money at hotels and restaurants while they do, as the event puts Sarasota on the map, even as far away as Japan.

"Good luck," says the reporter at the end of the interview with the Kimuras. "Thank you," they reply, of course, in sync.