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Out Of Sync Just one thing stands between Bill May and his dream of competing for an Olympic medal: He's not a woman

Aug. 23, 1999
Aug. 23, 1999

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Aug. 23, 1999

Out Of Sync Just one thing stands between Bill May and his dream of competing for an Olympic medal: He's not a woman

William Aaron May is a world-class athlete, a man perfectly
engineered for his sport. He is broad through the shoulders and
back, smooth-muscled, powerful, neither too short nor too tall.
He is well-proportioned, machined to his sport's specifications:
long and strong at the arms and legs for leverage, thick at the
ribs for inhaling barrel-sized lungfuls of air. William Aaron
May at 20 is focused, determined and intense. He practices every
day--six, eight, 10 hours at a time. Sacrifices himself, in ways
large and small, for a dream. The first time I see William Aaron
May, he is surrounded by hard-bodied young women in bathing
suits, and he is crying.

This is an article from the Aug. 23, 1999 issue Original Layout

Understand that Bill May knew this bad moment was coming. "It's
something I've known ever since my first coach sat me down and
told me, 'You can keep doing this if you want to, but there's
not much of a future,'" he says. He has known for 10 years how
this chapter of his story would end. Has pictured it and heard
it again and again in his head, trying to prepare himself for
it, harden himself to the inevitability of it. Still, when it
happens, when that bad thing finally swaggers in from your own
future, kicks you squarely in your tenderest parts and then sits
down next to you, perhaps for the rest of your life, it hurts.
Knowing that it's coming doesn't make it hurt any less.

The heavy air and the distortion and all that satin-finished
concrete inside the Weyerhaeuser King County Aquatic Center in
suburban Seattle make it difficult to understand the P.A.
announcements. Thirteen names have been called. Thirteen
world-class athletes have just been introduced as members of the
2000 U.S. Synchronized Swimming Olympic Training Squad. Bill
May's name has not been announced. While he's a highly ranked
member of the national team and might easily have made the
Olympic squad, men are not allowed to compete in synchronized
swimming at the Olympics.

The words and the names echo through the humidity and the high,
nasal, chlorine stink, ricocheting from wall to wall, across the
pool and up five stories to the ceiling and back down into the
crowd. The audience applauds as the new Olympic team gathers at
one end of the pool and dons, for the first time, its red, white
and blue warmups. Each swimmer receives a folded American flag.
Each flag, we are told, has been flown over the nation's
Capitol. In an airplane, perhaps? There is some confusion on
this point among spectators.

In the meantime, 30 feet from the podium, Bill May sits and
watches the women he has trained with realize their dreams. He's
happy for them, of course, and proud, but he knows that he can't
go with them. He has known all along. For 13 young women and one
young man, this is the defining moment in a young lifetime's
worth of hard work. All the practice in the world won't make
Bill May what he most needs to be right now: a woman. That's
when he puts his head down, a hand to his face, and cries.

Synchronized swimming is a curious thing, a hybrid of sport and
theater, Lloyd Bridges and Lloyd Webber. Overlooked when it's
not misunderstood, it is always Esther Williams and sometimes
Austin Powers. A direct descendant of Billy Rose's Aquacade of
the 1930s, it began as water ballet, a kind of semisubmerged
vaudeville dance line. As a Technicolor Williams lagoon-stroked
her way through MGM films in the '40s, hundreds of amateur clubs
splashed up around the country with names such as Sea Sirens,
Sea Sprites, Corkettes, Aquamaids and Aquanuts. What began as a
recreational imitation of Hollywood's elaborate choreography was
formalized in the late 1940s as a competitive sport with
compulsory figures, judges and a complex scoring system. It has
been an Olympic event since 1984, the same year it became a
national punchline in a sketch on Saturday Night Live. Tracie
Ruiz and Candy Costie won Olympic gold for the U.S. in Los
Angeles that summer; Harry Shearer and Martin Short foundered in
the shallow end that fall, and America has been confused as hell
about synchronized swimming ever since.

It may be the half-lame suits and pageant-winner headgear or the
pinchy little nose clips or the Timmy Tooth smiles or the
waterproof RuPaul makeup, but synchronized swimming has had an
awful time getting itself taken seriously. Maybe it's the
gelatinized hair (gelatin hardens in the pool, melts in the
shower--way less work than Vaseline) or the overwrought Vangelis
elevator music that accompanies many of the routines, but it all
adds up to a broad public perception that this isn't so much a
real sport as it is a floor show, the opening number at the
Fountainbleu circa 1959.

While the quirks and cliches of synchronized swimming are
undeniable, it is also undeniably a sport, no more eccentric
than figure skating or gymnastics. It places the same premium on
endurance and precision; calls for an equal application of
athleticism and esthetics to the art of making the
near-impossible look easy; exacts the same kind of pain. It is
as tough a thing, albeit an odd one, as a human can choose to
do. Williams, Hollywood's Million Dollar Mermaid, puts it this
way: "Imagine doing an entire gymnastics routine. Now imagine
doing an entire gymnastics routine without breathing."

Every great syncher in America is in Seattle this second week in
June: Anna Kozlova, May's roommate, the former Russian star now
awaiting her citizenship so she can swim for the U.S.; Tammy
Cleland-McGregor and Heather Pease, '96 gold medalists in
Atlanta, out of retirement and trying for Sydney as a duet;
Kristina Lum, one of the sport's most elegant solo performers
and May's duet partner.

The lobby of the cavernous Weyerhaeuser natatorium is stuffed
with commemorative merchandise: T-shirts and fridge magnets and
posters, most of them punny--SYNCH AND SWIM, SYNCH 'EM IN
SYDNEY, etc. Best-in-show goes to a bumper sticker that reads
SYNCHRONIZED SWIMMING: WAITING TO INHALE.

The lobby is also stuffed with girls aged seven to 16. During
breaks in the scheduled events the young women pictured on the
posters sit behind folding tables and sign autographs in the
damp, gelatin-melting heat. The best swimmers in the world aren't
much older than the girls handing over their Sharpies and
stammering out compliments. Not many boys are in evidence.

Many of these little girls are from Seattle-area synchro clubs
and will swim in demonstrations during the closing ceremonies.
That's one reason Bill May is here. In addition to bellowing
encouragement and hugging his teammates, he will be swimming
several demonstration numbers and helping to run workshops for
local synchronizers. May can teach aspirant synchers about the
value of an iron work ethic or the need for full extension on a
front walkover, but what can he tell a bleacher's worth of
little girls about how it feels to be the onliest man in the
pool? Because he's alone in the world at this level (except
for--bien sur!--one Frenchman), May's experience is singular.

He was in a pool before he could walk; all three May kids were.
As a 10-year-old gymnast and swimmer from upstate New York, Bill
got into the sport because, he says, "it was either that or sit
outside and watch" while his little sister attended her synchro
class at the public pool. Bill's mom, Sharon, an avid swimmer,
suggested he join the class when she saw another boy standing
next to the pool during a practice session. She assumed he was a
synchronized swimmer. He was not, of course, but Bill had found
what some of us never find, a life's calling. "It was waiting
for him," Sharon says. "It became all-consuming almost right
away."

From that moment to this, Bill has been passionate about
synchro's physical rigors and its showmanship. "I've always
loved performing," he says. "I've always loved gymnastics and
the water, and this combines all the things I love best."

Bill's father, Robert, proudly corroborates this with a
well-polished groaner, "He's a ham, and he'll never be cured."

By the time Bill was 16, his parents had nearly worn out the
family car driving two hours round-trip to practice each day,
and he'd exhausted every local option for coaching and
competition. If he wanted to improve, to compete with and
against the best, he had to go somewhere else. So he did. He
moved 3,000 miles, by himself, to join the Santa Clara Aquamaids
in northern California. "It tore my heart out," says Sharon,
"but I knew he was good enough, and I knew if we didn't let him
go, we would always regret it." Since then, he has finished high
school, enrolled in college, traveled the world and, in what
reflects a loneliness he never admits, run up a phone bill back
to Syracuse the price of an Internet-stock offering.

Remarkably, May says, he has navigated all this for 10 years
without much taunting from classmates or being strong-armed for
his milk money. "It's weird," he says, "but everyone's been real
supportive."

Like most postmodern amateur athletes, May scrapes by on a
part-time job and corporate sponsorships. He has no free time to
speak of, but when he does, he gets together with teammates or
goes to the movies. He enjoys cooking and is in charge of
desserts for team parties. Aptly, his favorite TV show is Living
Single. Like most male athletes, he sleeps a lot. Unlike most
male athletes, he lives in a women's world, shares their secrets
(if not their dressing room) and hears the talk talked between
women that most men dread, or dream of. "It was a little awkward
at first," he says, "but after a while you get used to it. It's
like a family."

The disproportionate amount of media coverage May gets is
registered with equanimity by his teammates. The absolute worst
thing you'll hear from anybody is this: "I'd like to see some of
the focus placed back where it was in '96, but the attention is
good for the sport." Even anonymously, this is said without much
energy or conviction.

This is ironic, because energy and conviction lie at the very
heart of synchronized swimming. Every move in the rule
book--whether Ariana, Dalecarlia or Subalina--is an artful
deception, a triumph of grace over gravity. It is no easy thing
to boost the human body out of the water to the waist. (For the
last time, they are not walking on the bottom of the pool.)
While what the audience sees is all toe-point and teeth and the
tanned simultaneity of 80 fingers folded just so, an
eight-woman-team routine viewed from underwater looks more like
the consequence of a shark attack at a community swim. The
frantic (and synchronous) eggbeatering of all those unseen legs
(or arms, when the swimmers are upside down) is awesome stuff.
All the more when you realize that breathing is only a sometime
option over the course of a five-minute performance and runs a
distant second to smiling. Keeping that big show-biz happyface
plastered on your mug for the judges while your brain starts the
emergency-shutdown checklist is a victory for individual will
and for a dolphin's worth of dissolved oxygen in your bloodstream.

There is also something impossibly sexy about it all, but in a
chaste, Betty Grable sort of way. All that skin and muscle and
water. Very elemental. A point borne out when May and Lum demo
their duet before the closing ceremonies. They won a silver medal
at last year's Goodwill Games (one of the few international
competitions for which May is eligible) swimming to Bolero,
Ravel's homage to metronomic repetition and black satin sheets.
This year it's an Adam-and-Eve number done to a faux-primitive
percussion recording. The whole thing sounds like Gene Krupa
tom-tomming the first 16 bars of Sing, Sing, Sing.

When May is introduced to the crowd it is explained that he
can't swim at the Olympics. Lusty boos follow. May is a fan
favorite, and it's easy to see why. He is terrifically good at
this, and the awkwardness at watching a man in what has
traditionally been a woman's venue lasts only a few seconds.
Seeing him swim with Lum seems natural and is no different from
watching, say, Torvill and Dean. May and Lum are balletic
together, and their new routine ranges from playful to explosive
to wanton. It is more affecting in purely dramatic terms, in
fact, than the single-sex version, which has about it the
astringent whiff of state-fair-quality baton twirling. But
mixed-pairs swimming, as it did with Esther and
Fernando/Ricardo, turns an exercise in dexterity into a kitschy
act of universal appetite. What, after all, is the ballet
without a Baryshnikov?

Williams, synchro's Queen Mum, agrees that men and women in the
water together is the necessary future of the sport, and she
applauds Bill May. "He's been a pioneer in something that really
needs pioneering," she says.

Chris Carver, coach of the Olympic team and the dynastic Santa
Clara Aquamaids, with whom May trains, says of intersex
possibilities at the higher reaches of the sport, "It's
something I favor. I find there's more logic to it." Changes
come slowly, though, to a sport in which progress is best
measured in geologic time. Then there's the Catch-22 of the
electronic age: No men in big-time international competition
(and therefore on television) means no little shavers practicing
their somersubs in the kiddie pool. As evidenced by the absence
of so much as a single Y chromosome performing a corkscrew or
dolpholina at the star-spangled cast-of-thousands closing
ceremonies, there are very few boys in the pipeline. There will
be no groundswell to include boys in a sport in which there are
no boys, and with no one of his own generation to compete
against, May might not get the chance to pursue his dreams any
further.

The American women in Sydney will get stiff competition from the
Russians and the Japanese. There are rumors afloat that May
might get to go along as a pre-swimmer, a syncher who swims
first so the judges can agree on the baselines for scoring. It
is small consolation. "Before I retire I would like to see
something change. If it's not pushed, the sport can't grow," May
says, readying himself for the trip home. Of that heartbreaking
moment the day before, when his future caught up with him on the
wet deck of a pool in Seattle, May is philosophical: "Sometimes
you can't help being upset, or discouraged, even if you plan for
it for 10 years."

The future has a way of unspooling possibilities other than those
we dream about. Of making undreamed and better outcomes for those
strong enough to hold their breath. If he can last, as one of
May's teammates put it, "he'll be a hero someday."

COLOR PHOTO: RICH FRISHMAN Out of Synch Just one thing stands between Bill May and his dream of competing for an Olympic medal: He's not a woman [T of C]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY RICH FRISHMAN Treading lightly May and his national-team duet partner, Lum, were crowd favorites during their exhibition at the Olympic trials in Seattle. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY RICH FRISHMAN Kitsch in sync May, getting a close shave from Lauren McFall, was allowed to compete at the 1998 Goodwill Games.COLOR PHOTO: TODD WARSHAW/ALLSPORT [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY RICH FRISHMAN Synching feeling Even though he knew he would be excluded, May cried when the Olympic team was announced in June.
May lives in a women's world, shares their secrets, hears the
talk talked between women that most men dread, or dream of.
May and Lum's duet turns an exercise in dexterity into a kitschy
act of universal appetite. What, after all, is the ballet without
a Baryshnikov?