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Synchronized swimming prepares for its newest addition: men - The Guardian

Author: The Guardian

Source: https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2023/oct/31/artistic-swimming-men-synrchronised-swimming-olympics-2024-paris

Image of Synchronized swimming prepares for its newest addition: men - The Guardian

It is common for an athlete’s journey to the Olympics to be long, uncertain, and littered with obstacles.And yet, even within the Games’ tradition of underdog tales, Bill May’s story stands out.This is because May, who is now 44, spent most of his life unsure whether he would ever be eligible for the Olympics.May is a male artistic swimmer, something that has prevented him from participating on his sport’s grandest stages.Since its debut at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, only women have been permitted to compete in artistic swimming (which was known as ‘synchronized swimming’ before being controversially renamed in 2017).Now, 40 years later, that restriction is loosening. Per a 2022 decision by the sport’s global governing body, nations competing in artistic swimming’s team event at next year’s Paris Olympics can (but aren’t required to) include up to two men on their eight-person squads.Although this represents a substantial shift in policy, men have been competing in artistic swimming’s world championships since 2015, when a mixed-gender duet event was introduced.What started with just one event has become increasingly inclusive – as of the 2023 World Championships, men and women can compete in every artistic swimming discipline at the world championship level.The reasons for excluding men from artistic swimming are unclear and, as May points out, may contradict the sport’s roots.According to May, who has clearly frequently encountered this question before, the similar techniques which artistic swimming shares with nihon eiho (a traditional form of swimming associated with Japanese samurai) imply a history that involved male participants.“It absolutely did start with a lot of men,” May says.“Esther Williams [the film star who popularized ‘aquamusicals’ in the 1940s and 50s], she always swam with men.”There’s an instinct to think that artistic swimming’s shift toward becoming a women-only sport centres around outdated concepts of masculinity.May’s favourite theory, however, is more prosaic. According to May, American universities’ efforts to offer equal numbers of men’s and women’s sports in the wake of 1972’s introduction of Title IX legislation led to a unofficial determination that only women could participate in artistic swimming.And, given the large role the US played in institutionalizing artistic swimming, that preference was internationalized.“You can talk to a lot of judges, coaches that have been in the sport a long time and, back in the 60s, they had a lot of men on the team,” May says.“And then, sometime along that journey, they started to push [men] out because they wanted a female-only team … Then the stereotypes came in, because there were only [women] in the sport.”Whatever the reason, by the 1980s and 90s, stereotypes about men in artistic swimming had developed.“When I was little, [a person was] calling me a pervert and [saying] the only reason I’m doing this is to be around girls in swimsuits,” May says.“There was those type of people.There’s people that will question around sexuality. People [will] judge and question anything … The more people talked about it, the more insecure I got.The more worried I got about people making fun of me.”This self-doubt, however, would prove only temporary.As he would on multiple occasions during his conversation with the Guardian, May mentions the relief he found in the tireless support of those around him.“I was lucky that I had so much support from my friends and my family, and my coaches that, no matter what people would say, they were stronger on the other side saying, ‘You don’t need them.’”Whatever the initial causes, artistic swimming’s era of excluding men appears to be coming to an end.In addition to the previously mentioned changes at the world championships, there is some talk of opening up artistic swimming’s other Olympic discipline (the still-women-only duet event) to men at future games.For now, however, the team event remains the only path to the Olympics available to men in artistic swimming. That is, of course, if they qualify.May and his US teammates are currently in Chile for the Pan-American Games where, in order to secure a spot next year in Paris, they must take first place.Team USA coach Andrea Fuentes admits that anything less than a gold at the Pan-American GAmes will be a disappointment.“Bill has to be in those Olympics,” she says.“It’s one of my missions as a coach … I have to qualify the team – not only for the country, but for the sport because Bill has to be there.”May and Fuentes have known each other for decades, having initially met at May’s first international competition in 1996.Fuentes remembers first seeing May and “looking at him like, ‘What is he doing here?Wow, he’s brave.’”May’s gender may have been what turned heads at his first international meet, but it was his excellence in the pool that ended up generating discussions about men’s participation at the sport’s highest levels. By the late 1990s, his status as an artistic swimming star was undeniable.Along with partner Kristina Lum, May won the duet event at 1998 US National Championship and, as an individual, he was named US Synchronized Swimming Athlete of the Year in 1998 and 1999.Even with his ongoing success, 1999 was an ultimately a difficult year for May’s career as officials rejected his bid to participate in that year’s Pan-American Games.He was similarly barred from participating in the following year’s Summer Olympics in Sydney.To May, such exclusion was a sign of a sport in decline.“There’s no possible way for a sport to survive if you’re purposefully keeping one gender out, whether it’s male or female,” he says.“I knew our sport would die if they [didn’t allow men to compete] and I love the sport too much to allow that to happen.”Bill May has been involved in artistic swimming since the 1990s.Photograph: USA Artistic SwimmingSo, he put all of his efforts into making the case for male artistic swimmers.skip past newsletter promotionafter newsletter promotion“We were pushing, pushing, pushing,” May says. “We were going to any competition we could go to push for the involvement of men in the sport.My club, Santa Clara Artistic Swimming [would] support me with funding to travel.Anything we could do to get men involved, we were doing.We were giving clinics.We were traveling around the world giving exhibitions. We were going to shows.We were talking to World Aquatics.Anything that we could do just to get exposure to men in the sport.”Despite his dogged efforts, May was again prevented from competing at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, although he was on-site for the US team’s bronze-medal performance.“That was pure joy to see my teammates join that Olympic podium – you know, if you can’t compete, there’s not greater joy than seeing your friends that have been your family for years accomplish their dreams,” he says.After the Athens Games, May’s career took a non-Olympic detour – he spent the next decade swimming in Cirque de Soleil’s water-themed show at the Bellagio in Las Vegas.Performing 10 times a week, May estimates he’s appeared in more than 7,500 shows and credits this role with keeping him fit enough for competition as the rules governing competitive artistic swimming began to change.Indeed, while May was living as a performer in Las Vegas, attitudes toward men’s participation in artistic swimming had evolved so much that, by 2015, men were allowed to participate in the world championships for the first time.May came out of competitive retirement to participate in the 2015 championships and, perhaps fittingly, became the first man ever to win an artistic swimming gold medal at the world championships.He remembers standing on the podium and, rather than pride, feeling gratitude.“It was unreal,” he says. “All I could think was, ‘Thank you to every single person.Thank you to my grandmother, thank you to my parents, thank you to my family, thank you to my coaches that allowed me to do this.’”May’s medal seems to have been a harbinger of successes to come.His return to competitive swimming has coincided with a resurgence in the US’s artistic swimming fortunes.Once a powerhouse in the sport (both Fuentes and May mention the 1996 US gold medal team as being foundationally important to their love of artistic swimming), the US team has only recently started to emerge from a years-long slump – a US artistic swimming team hasn’t even qualified for the Olympics since 2008.Coming off a pair of bronze- and silver-medal performances at July’s world championships in Japan, however, the team’s prospects for next year’s Olympics are better than they’ve been in years.Despite existing at a nexus of artistry and athleticism similar to gymnastics and figure skating (two sports which frequently receive the highest US television ratings in the Summer and Winter Olympics, respectively), artistic swimming has yet to capture the popular imagination in the US.The sport’s rechristening as “artistic swimming” probably hasn’t helped – even many artistic swimmers interviewed still refer to it as “synchro.” Nevertheless, Fuentes makes a compelling case for artistic swimming’s appeal.“For me, it’s the craziest sport that’s ever existed. We are, as humans, not made to live in the water,” she says.“But we are in there, upside down, which is [also] the opposite of what we are made for.On top of that, we have to be in a pattern with eight people, synchronized, expressing a theme that we are dancing, pushing people into the air without even touching the bottom of the pool … I think it’s crazy.”In addition to the sport’s athletic appeal, the possibility of seeing May finally qualify for the Olympics 24 years after his first attempt is difficult to ignore.The man himself is confident he’ll be in Paris.“I haven’t done anything, beside loving this sport, to make all of this happen,” he says.“And next year I can say, ‘I’m an Olympian,’ and no one will ever be able to take that from me.” The artistic swimming portions of the Pan-American Games start on 31 October through to 3 November.

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