He has been called “the greatest male synchronized swimmer in U.S. history,” and this summer, Bill May broke another record — and reached a goal that he had despaired of ever attaining.
In July 2015, male synchro swimmers were allowed to compete in the FINA World Championships in Kazan, Russia. May, 36, won a gold medal in mixed duet technical with Christina Jones, 27, and a silver in mixed duet free with Kristina Lum Underwood, 38.
“It’s unreal, a dream come true!” an ecstatic May told Agence France-Presse. “I never thought this would happen because I retired from synchro 10 years ago, so being able to do this has been a long time in the making. The sport is finally recognizing men, and it feels great. I have been stubborn and it has paid off. “
Though many hailed FINA’s decision to include male synchro swimmers in the World Championships, there was some opposition. “We’re used to classical synchronized swimming, feminine synchronized swimming,” Olympic synchro champion Angelika Timanima of Russia told the Associated Press.
Such comments don’t surprise May, but he thinks attitudes will change. “When people see it, see the athleticism and beauty in it, it will be taken in pretty well,” he told Nick Zaccardi, editor of Olympic Talk at NBCSports.com. “People will see it’s not just a sport of makeup and pretty suits. It will be a sport showcasing athleticism.”
Indeed, it is a demanding sport that requires strength, stamina and artistic flair. Many have likened mixed duet synchro swimming to figure skating. For it to become an Olympic event — something May has wanted for years — the International Olympic Committee has said FINA must make a formal request at least three years prior to an Olympics. IOC then would thoroughly review the event, including surveying its worldwide popularity. As far as we know, FINA has not made such a request in time for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games.
Still, May remains hopeful that male synchro swimming will come to the Olympics. His interest in the sport started at age 10 in upstate New York after he saw his sister’s beginning synchro swimming class in action. He was in competitive swimming, but became so intrigued that he started taking synchro swim lessons and later performed with the Syracuse Synchro Cats team. In 1996, then-16-year-old May moved to Santa Clara, Calif., and was accepted into one of the top American synchro swimming programs, the Santa Clara Aquamaids. Among his teammates were Jones and Lum Underwood. Little did the three know that they would make history 19 years later at the 16th FINA World Championships.
In May’s synchro swimming career, he won 14 U.S. national championships. He and Lum Underwood captured four U.S. duet titles, four more titles in European countries, and a silver medal in the duet event at the 1998 Goodwill Games in the USA. He was named U.S. Synchronized Swimming Athlete of the Year in 1998 and 1999. Despite all of these achievements, May was barred from competing in the 1999 Pan American Games and the 2004 Olympics because of his gender. In those arenas, synchronized swimming was seen as a women-only sport.
After retiring from competition, May joined Cirque du Soleil’s water show, “O,” at the Bellagio in Las Vegas. He’s part of its 17-person synchronized swim team, and also appears periodically throughout the show as the Waiter, which he calls a “moving shoulder contortionist character.” Coincidentally, Jones also is in the cast of “O,” while Lum Underwood performs in “Le Reve - The Dream,” an aquatic show at Wynn Las Vegas. The three perform multiple times every week in their respective shows, which kept them in great shape so they could transition into training for the 2015 World Championships. Their coach was none other than Chris Carver, who guided them while they were in the Aquamaids.
Christina and Kristina wanted to help their friend in his quest to represent the U.S. in the first mixed duets at the World Championships. For his part, Bill was grateful and eager to show what he could do. Did he ever!
Can the Olympics be far behind?