Laugh if you want. Laughter just in case. Bill May and other male synchronized swimmers, now called artistic swimmers, have heard the putdowns before.
But they are the ones who have the last laugh.
Men have competed in synchro at the lower levels for decades. They are now being included in the Olympics, which means next year’s Summer Games in Paris.
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«I think it’s a great opportunity for the sport to grow and attract more men,» May told the Associated Press at the World Aquatics Championships. «By leaving out men, you are limiting the sport. By including men, you will see an increase in popularity and numbers.»
May looks like a skinny bodybuilder. He was one of the first men to compete when synchronization was included in the worlds for the first time in 2015. And he worked for 17 years at Cirque du Soleil doing aquatic-themed shows. He has come out of competitive retirement from him for a chance to compete in the Olympics.
«There’s always been this misconception that it’s a women’s only sport, or that it’s for wimps, or that it’s not a difficult sport,» said May, 44. «Anyone who has something negative to say about the sport: child, woman, anyone. Just try it and you’ll know it’s the hardest sport in the world.»
This is not the synchronized swimming that your parents or grandparents saw, the aquatic ballet that made few waves under flowered rubber caps and permanent smiles, a departure from the sport introduced at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
The team acrobatic event, in particular, features lifts, tosses and flips, and diving routines launched from the shoulders of teammates floating underwater. It’s water gymnastics and concussions are a risk.
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Interested men often confront stereotypes.
Starting in elementary school, 18-year-old American Kenny Gaudet dreamed of being a synchronized swimmer. He did it, but it wasn’t easy.
«It makes me emotional just thinking about the struggles we all went through and the struggles we all had just to get the chance to swim and do what we love,» said Gaudet, who competed in this year’s worlds.
«So much intimidation. So much slander. So much hate,» he added. «Just because of my gender, just because I’m a man in artistic swimming. When I started, a lot of times I wanted to quit. Growing up, my peers would ask me why I’m doing a female sport, why I’m like a girl and demean me for doing what what I love to do.»
One aspect of Adam Andrasko’s job as head of USA Artistic Swimming is recruiting men. He said there are about 100 participants in the United States, up from 25 just four years ago.
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«There hasn’t been a good growth base,» Andrasko said. «You haven’t had the farm system.»
Some countries at world championships have male swimmers, including the United States, Japan, Germany, and China. Spain and Italy also have big competitors.
«There aren’t many countries with strong men» in international competition, Andrasko said, noting that men often lack the flexibility to compete. «So, you might not see a lot of men swimming at the Olympics. I’m worried that I go to the Olympics and we won’t see a man participate. I definitely have that fear.»
«Up to this point,» he added, «women are still much better at this sport than men.»
Another seemingly unfounded fear is that women will be upset with men who compete in this sport. Men will compete only in team events at the Olympic Games. Teams have a maximum of eight members, with a limit of two men, which means that men can displace some women.
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There is no requirement for men to be included.
When asked about any roughness, two-time US Olympian Anita Alvarez replied, «Not at all.»
Alvarez has passed out twice in the past two years while competing and had to be resuscitated. She has been cleared to compete without any diagnosis except physical or mental exhaustion. She is also suspected that she holds her breath for too long underwater.
Men can add some physicality to routines, and their presence could lead to a larger audience. Álvarez also credits May with the choreographic skills she acquired with Cirque du Soleil.
«Having the inclusion of men and women will make it more open for young boys and girls to dream of being in the Olympic Games, parents who want to initiate their children,» Alvarez said.
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He stormed out of his exercise routine, sure to scare men and women alike.
«We are training more than eight hours a day, holding out all day,» he said. «You have to be able to tell time and work to music. You have to be able to watch your patterns and stay in line. We don’t wear goggles when we compete. You’re holding your breath. You don’t hit bottom. There are so many elements that go into him that people don’t see.»
And we’re about to see more men trying.