He’s a man competing in a predominantly woman’s sport, and that suits Bill May just fine.
Think of synchronized swimming, and visions of Esther Williams come to mind: Women with Vaseline-slicked hair, nose plugs and makeup who compete on teams named the Mermaids and Dolphinettes.
But the sport is hardly dainty, requiring tremendous strength and stamina. And today it also includes men — although it’s still a pretty exclusive club, and May is among the best there is.
No Men Allowed
May, the first male member of the U.S. national team, wasn’t allowed to compete in the 1999 Pan American Games in Winnipeg, Manitoba. The World Championships have been off limits, too. And now May isn’t going to Sydney to compete in the Olympics either.
That’s because men aren’t allowed at worldwide competitions and the Olympics. A proposal to allow mixed pairs will be voted on by the international swimming federation (FINA) on Sept. 14.
“Seeing my entire team go off to Sydney without me has to have been the hardest moment in the sport,” says May, 21, who moved without his family from Syracuse, N.Y., to California when he was 16 so he could train with the Santa Clara Aquamaids.
But would he have made the Olympic team had he been allowed to compete? “Let me tell you this,” says Chris Carver, May’s coach and that of current Olympians, “He not only would have made the team, he would have been among the very top of the competitors on the U.S. team.”
A Champion’s Attitude
May won synchronized swimming’s Grand Slam (solo, duet, team and figures) at the 2000 Jantzen Nationals, finished first in duet at the Swiss Open and French Open last year, and was named the U.S. Synchronized Swimming Athlete of the Year in 1998 and 1999.
“Bill has a tremendously high skill level that is not necessarily related to being a man,” Carver explains. “He’s very flexible, he’s very intelligent and takes corrections very well, he’s very creative. … But the thing that brings it all together is his attitude — he has a champion’s attitude. He knows what it takes to win.”
His solo performances have been outstanding, says Carver, who has coached “very few” men in her 32 years in the sport. She points to May’s interpretation of Gene Kelly in a routine to “Singing in the Rain” and his role as Lucifer in another solo performance as being particularly memorable.
But his role in mixed pairs is what has turned the public’s attention to him.
Swimming in Uncharted Waters
May and Kristina Lum, his duet partner of three years, became the first mixed pair to compete at the Goodwill Games in 1998. Their steamy, ground-breaking performance to Ravel’s “Bolero” was an ode to the Olympic gold-medal winning ice dancers Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean and earned them a silver medal. May called the moment the highlight of his career.
“We would watch ice dancing to really simulate the closeness and intertwined movements,” Lum says, describing their development of the routine. “Like them [Torvill and Dean], we really tried to play off the passion between a man and a woman, and I think the audience really fed off that.”
The intent to emulate the legendary ice dancers was not purely for reasons of artistic expression. The pair also wanted to make a statement, to send a signal that their sport should follow the evolution of others.
“This is where the sport should be heading, is mixed pairs,” says Lum. “Ice skating started with two women skating together and men skating, and then evolved to mixed pairs. It just makes sense that synchronized swimming should do the same.”
May agrees. “It’s frustrating to see why there aren’t more men in synchronized swimming when ice dancing is so popular and the sports are so similar.”
Former Gymnast Shines in the Pool
May hadn’t always envisioned himself a synchronized swimmer. He started out as a gymnast and tried synchronized swimming because his sister was doing it. “You might as well do it, too, just to pass the time,” his mom said. He did, and at 10 years old, his career in the sport began.
“I basically see myself as any person who wanted to try synchronized swimming. When I first joined, I thought, ‘This is a great sport and it’s fun.’” He did not have visions, he says, of becoming a pioneer, of making a statement, of going where few men have ever gone. But he hopes other men follow his lead.
He does add a fresh dynamic to the team, his teammates say. His strong thrusts and ability to jump high out of the water have brought even more power and artistry to a graceful and strong team. And the man can cook, often whipping up meals — and his signature chocolate truffles — for his teammates.
But there have been many sacrifices for a sport that has yet to fully embrace him.
“It’s difficult because there’s always the financial burden,” May says. When he didn’t qualify for funding this year from the U.S. Olympic Committee or USA Synchronized Swimming because he was ineligible for the Olympics, his teammates stepped in.
“The team got together and pooled their money and gave me part of their money from the USOC and the federation. I started crying because synchronized swimming doesn’t have a lot of money, and to see your teammates give you money when they don’t have any of it themselves was incredible.”
Real Love for the Sport
Carver says her star pupil, who puts in eight-hour days at the pool and at flexibility and dance classes, has won over his teammates and fans with his dedication. But there are still roadblocks.
“You know, we so often champion the women who challenge areas — professionally and in sports — normally held by men, and we don’t do the same for men,” she notes. “And I really think, in a way, that what he’s doing is harder.
“When we went to Rome, we heard that a man [synchronized swimmer] before had been hit with tomatoes,” she continues, “and yet Bill went in there and totally won them over. I’ve never seen anyone who watched him come away with anything but respect — I’ve never seen a giggle or anything.”
May’s duet partner, who will compete in Sydney, agrees.
“I think Bill should be really respected for what he’s doing, for being the only male in a predominantly all-woman sport,” Lum says. “Most people’s goal in sports is to go to the Olympics, and he obviously doesn’t have a chance to do that. And yet he’s still so dedicated and works so hard. You have to have a real love for a sport to do that.”