Synchronized swimming team reunites for Show-Me State Games

Sunday, July 12, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 9:16 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 22, 2009
Jan Bleakley, left, and Paula Donoho practice their routine for the Show-Me State games' 50-plus division of synchronized swimming. Donoho and Bleakley, along with several other friends that will compete, were part of the MO Maids, an intramural synchronized swim team, that trained at MU in the 1970's.

COLUMBIA — In the back corner of the Country Club of Missouri's pool, there are two women who stick out from the rest of the people.

The pool is full of kids shooting hoops at the little blue basket at the side of the pool and splashing each other to stay cool in the humid summer afternoon heat as the sun beats down on the back of their necks. While the kids play in water, two women in their 50s are studying a sheet of paper. They slide into the pool not to stay cool, but to practice a routine.

“Pat, pat, pull, pat, pat, pull,” one woman instructs in a nasal tone because of her nose plug.

They touch the water with their hands, then take another stroke to the middle of the pool.

They have small blue plugs covering part of their noses, and a boom box that is playing classical music. The song “Habanera” from the opera “Carmen” plays in the background, and the women begin doing a routine.

The two women in the pool are Paula Donoho and Jan Bleakley, and they were part of the Mo-Maids, a synchronized swimming team at MU from 1973 to 77. Now, more than 30 years later, Donoho, Bleakley and three other teammates are competing as the Mo-Maids once more for the Show-Me State Games synchronized swimming competition July 26 at Hickman High School. The Mo-Maids will be competing against a team from St. Louis in the 50-and-over division.

Donoho and Bleakley spin to the right, turn onto their backs and go under water, sticking their legs into the air. They move rhythmically to the choppy tempo of “Habanera,” floating on their backs as they continue their routine.

“Now I’m going to lift you up, but there will be five others helping when we do this again,” Donoho said.

Donoho lifts Bleakley out of the water briefly and then she splashes back into the pool. They finish their routine laughing and cracking jokes about how goofy they looked at their age.

“It’s fun. We’ve all been friends a long time, but it’s fun to get back together,” Donoho said. “You have to be willing to do it. People are laughing when we tell them we are doing this. As well they should.”

Becky Bockelman, who lives in Overland Park, Kan., and is a part of the Mo-Maids, says they never would have done this without Donoho organizing it.

“Paula sent an e-mail. Always the enthusiast, she found information about the Show-Me State Games and said, ‘Guys we can do this,’” Bockelman said. “She e-mailed 15 women, five signed up, and she said you have to be willing to wear a black suit, waterproof make-up and have a complete lack of integrity.”

The five Mo-Maids have known each other since high school and lived in the same dorm in college. Despite living in different cities, they try to get back together to drink, eat and reminisce once a year. Diane Hauvelman, another member of the team, says that they remain close despite the long distances.

“This is one of those friendships where you don’t have to have daily or weekly communication to stay close,” Hauvelman said.

The group’s friendship has undergone a crisis the last two years when two members, Hauvelman and Bockelman, were faced with nearly fatal health conditions, however. Two years ago, Hauvelman was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a surgery, six sessions of chemo and 33 sessions of radiation. Hauvelman says that her Mo-Maid friends were crucial in her recovery.

“Paula and Jan drove in one weekend after I found out. They drove all the way here (St. Louis) from Kansas City and Columbia to have dinner and spend time with me,” Hauvelman said. “You don’t realize how many friends you have until after something like that.”

The following year, Bockelman had a heart attack, and if it weren’t for an off-duty EMT and a quick thinking brother-in-law, she would have died.

“It was a series of miracles,” Bockelman said.

However, after making complete recoveries, competing as the Mo-Maids once more has played a huge role in their lives. Hauvelman says that it provides something fun she can train for and look forward to. Bockelman adds that it has been an important aid in her recovery.

“It’s been a huge motivator because life is worth living in so many ways, and this is another way to express it,” Bockelman said.

The Mo-Maids have been practicing their routine for the last two months, but because they all live in different cities and state, they haven’t gone through the routine together. They plan to get together the day before the competition, however and practice as a group. Despite the lack of practice, Bleakley says they are not worried. She says as much as they would like to win, the enjoyment they get out of competing together again is good enough.

“We are doing it because we can. Fifty is the new 30, you know. We are young-minded for sure,” Bleakley said. “It gives us something fun to do. It’s fun to get together in the summer and do something instead of drinking and eating.”

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