In an atmosphere of chlorine and liniment so familiar to her, Helen Salcedo, afreshman at Bell High School and a top national swimmer, waited to compete in the CIF City Section meet at Belmont Plaza Olympic Pool in Long Beach.
Out of the turquoise water, Salcedo blended in with the other swimmers, who, wrapped in sweat suits or towels, socialized on the bleachers or by the snack stand.
Before taking practice laps for the 100-yard breast stroke event last week, the 14-year-old talked about what she likes most about her sport.
"Finishing a race and knowing you did your best," she said. "When everybody in the building is clapping, the feeling sends shivers up and down your spine."
Salcedo, who won her first meet when she was 6, has impressive credentials. In March she won the 200-yard breast stroke at the Junior Nationals in Iowa City with a time of 2:20.96, only 11 seconds slower than the national senior women's record.
She has been lowering her times dramatically. Two winters ago, she swam the 200-yard breast stroke in over three minutes. But last summer at the Junior Nationals in Austin, Tex., she swam the long-course 200-meter breast stroke in 2:48.99. Although she did not place, the time was a personal best.
She hopes to make the National Junior Team, a 12-boy, 12-girl group that will train in the fall at Colorado Springs and compete next January in Europe. That, said Don Watkinds, her coach at the Bellflower Aquatic Club, requires a 200-meter breast stroke time of about 2:38.
"If she would jump in the pool now and swim 200 meters under 2:38 it wouldn't surprise me," Watkinds said.
Salcedo, who learned to swim at the South Gate YMCA, was a unique addition to the Bell High team: the first girl to come in with experience, according to Bell Coach Frosty Golembeske.
"Most of the kids don't know how to swim at all when they get here, or maybe just a survival stroke," said Golembeske, who coaches in an area not known for its number of back-yard pools.
Golembeske wore a T-shirt that proclaimed Bell the "Team of the Decade."
In the last nine years, Golembeske's teams have not lost a meet in the Northeastern League, which also consists of South Gate, Huntington Park, Garfield, Roosevelt and Eagle Rock high schools. He admitted, though, that the Bell Eagles were not in the class of perennial power Palisades High. (Palisades won the CIF meet and Bell finished fourth.)
"We just put a lot of time and work in it, and try to stay on top of the new techniques," he said. "And a lot of it stems from desire and tradition."
Salcedo, who did not lose an event this season, said she was apprehensive when she joined the Bell team. "At first I was nervous because I thought they would think, 'This girl is much better than we are,' and wouldn't accept me. But they were friendly."
"They realized that she's there to help us," said Golembeske, who believes that Salcedo will be an All-American this year. "She works hard and has a good attitude."
Why is Salcedo, who also does well in freestyle and butterfly events, most proficient at the breast stroke?
"The strongest part of the stroke is the kick, and I have strong legs," she said.
Watkinds said, "It has a lot to do with ankle and knee flexibility, and the power they can generate."
She practices from 4 to 7 p.m. five days a week, but not with her teammates in the Bell pool. She and her brother, Tommy, a Bell High junior, go to the Bellflower Aquatic Club in Thompson Park for more advanced training under Watkinds.
The club swimmers first work on weight machines and do sit-ups and pull-ups, then endure intense sessions in the water.
When not swimming or doing homework, Salcedo says she enjoys listening to "mellow" rock music.
"She just listens to her radio in her room or helps mom around the house," Tommy said.
Wearing a purple cap, Salcedo lay on her stomach on a table beneath the bleachers a few minutes before the 100-meter breast stroke finals. Watkinds vigorously kneaded and twisted her ankles, and stretched her muscular legs.
"I make sure she's loose," he said. "And this increases her circulation."
Then the two went through a visualization of the race. He leaned over, close to her ear, and said, "You're driving forward . . . snap those legs . . . you're making your move . . . accelerate!"
He checked his stopwatch and went on: "You're driving into the wall . . . hit the wall right . . . you're hitting the wall . . . now, everything you've got."
He then applied a light green cream that he said was a mixture of mineral oil, wintergreen, alcohol, lanolin and witch hazel. "She likes it hot," he said.
Then a goggled Salcedo took her mark and the race began.
"Come on, Helen. Let's go, Helen," shouted her teammates, standing on the deck.
Salcedo won easily with a time of 1:06.22.
Looking unsatisfied, she returned to her teammates and said, "I felt pretty good, I was hoping for a better time."
Still, she set a city record. And heard the applause at the finish.