Friday, August 20, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Kids born to compete: son to play in Little League World Series

Special to The Seattle Times

Little League World Series: Redmond vs. Richmond, Texas, noon, ESPN, KOMO (1000 AM)

Michael Conforto proves the cliché that the apple never falls far from the tree.

But the 11-year-old and his 13-year-old sister, Jacqueline, suggest that the apple is capable of bouncing into a neighboring field.

Both Conforto kids have displayed remarkable athletic ability. No surprise there. Their parents are Tracie Ruiz-Conforto, two-time Olympic gold medalist in synchronized swimming, and Mike Conforto, a former linebacker at Penn State. Yet the children have veered somewhat from their parents' paths while succeeding in two very different sports.

Jacqueline is a decorated soccer standout who represents Washington on an under-13 team that travels to tournaments throughout the West. And Michael will take the field tomorrow at noon as his Redmond North all-star baseball team begins play in the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa.

"This feels incredible," said Michael yesterday by telephone from Williamsport between video games at an arcade, dips in the pool and interviews taped with ESPN. "It feels unreal, because I always watched it on TV and never thought I could be there.

"It's like living a dream."

His mother would know about dreams. Tracie Ruiz-Conforto won two gold medals in synchronized swimming in the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles and added a silver in the 1988 Games in Seoul. And whether it's synchronized swimming, soccer, football or baseball, dreaming big hasn't changed since she was growing up in Bothell.

"It's a great experience for them, and it's kind of like what I remember from traveling around the country and competing when I was a kid," Ruiz-Conforto said while watching Michael and the Redmond North squad in the Northwest Regional Tournament in San Bernardino, Calif., earlier this month.

Michael first became aware of his parents' high-profile background when he was 5 or 6 and learned the significance of photos of his mother being presented with her gold medals.

"It means a lot to me, because I have a lot to look up to," he said.

Ruiz-Conforto won't be in Williamsport for Redmond North's opening game against Lamar National of Richmond, Texas, because she is in Athens providing Olympic commentary for NBC.

But Michael will have plenty of family on hand. His father grew up in Altoona, Pa., just 100 miles from Williamsport down Highway 220, and has many relatives in the area. His parents, who live in Washington, recently were visiting Pennsylvania for a family reunion but extended their stay to watch the World Series.

If Redmond North advances through pool play and qualifies for next week's championship round, the reunion may include Ruiz-Conforto. Mom may be able to return from Athens in time for the final games.

Michael is a left-handed-hitting center fielder for Redmond North, a collection of comeback kids who took the long road through the loser's bracket at both the district and state tournaments before claiming the Northwest Regional title in San Bernardino.

And, lest anyone thinks he has turned his back on his father's legacy, the 11-year-old also plays football for the Redmond Junior Mustangs in the Greater Eastside Football Association. And, like his sister, he is something of a soccer phenom when he can squeeze in matches with the Lake Washington Crossfire.

"I help coach his football team, and I can remember we'd literally finish a game and he'd change into his soccer gear in the car on the way to a game," Mike Conforto said. "I know nothing about soccer, but it's been fun to watch them be involved in another team sport."

Mike Conforto met Tracie after he and Penn State teammate Craig Coder moved to the Puget Sound area following graduation. After his own football career ended because of knee injuries, Conforto joined Coder and his brother, former Seahawks lineman Ron Coder, to open Pacific Nautilus, a gym that helped train athletes.

Ruiz came in while training for the 1988 Olympics.

"I saw her working out in the gym one day," Conforto recalled. "Here was this tiny little girl lifting some big weights, and I said, 'Who is that girl?' "

They married before she competed in Seoul.

Conforto now runs a home medical supply company in Kirkland and has spent autumns since 1996 as a volunteer linebackers coach for Redmond High School.

Michael's parents have put their competitive exploits behind them, though they remain active.

"We've gotten ourselves a little more into golf lately," Mike Conforto said. "Tracie will swim with the masters club at Bellevue now and then, and it's amazing to me how well she still does without doing it all the time."

One thing all four members of the family do is travel. Shortly before Michael and the Redmond North team went to California for the regional tournament, Jacqueline's U-13 soccer team competed in San Diego.

"It's amazing how, at such a young age, kids have so much travel involved," Conforto said. "They know school is No. 1, and everything else comes after that. But it's sure fun to see them do well. We know there's lot of fun ahead of them if they continue to do well."

Correspondent John Murphy contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company


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