Please laugh if you like. Laughter in a good way. Bill May and other men’s synchronized swimmers (now called artistic swimmers) have heard criticism before.
But they’re about to get the last laugh.
Men have been competing in synchronized swimming at lower levels for decades. Now they are included in the Olympic Games, which means next year’s Summer Olympics in Paris.
“I think it’s a huge opportunity for the sport to grow and attract more men,” May told the Associated Press at the World Swimming Championships. “Keeping men out limits the sport. Including men will see a shift in popularity and numbers.”
Mei looks like a toned bodybuilder. He was one of the first male athletes to compete when synchronized swimming was first added to the world sport in 2015. He also directed water-themed shows for Cirque du Soleil for 17 years. He returned from his competitive retirement in search of a chance to compete in the Olympics.
“There was always a misconception that it was a women’s only sport, that it was for wimps, that it wasn’t a difficult sport,” May, 44, said. “Anyone who says anything negative about this sport, boy or woman, try it and you will find it is the hardest sport in the world.”
This is not the synchronized swimming your parents and grandparents used to watch. Beneath a floral rubber cap and a constant smile, it’s his ballet in the water that barely made waves. It’s a far cry from the sport introduced at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
Particularly acrobatic team events feature routines of lifts, throws, flips, and diving off the shoulders of teammates treading water below. Exercise on water carries the risk of concussion.
Interested men often face stereotypes.
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18-year-old American Kenny Gaudet has dreamed of becoming a synchronized swimmer since elementary school. He made it, but it wasn’t easy.
“It’s heartbreaking just to think of the problems and struggles we all went through to get the chance to swim and do what we love,” said Gohde, who competed at this year’s world championships.
“Too much bullying. Too much slander. Very hateful,” he added. “Because of my gender, just because I am a man in artistic swimming. They will ask me what I do and why I look like a girl, and they will look down on me for doing what I love.”
One of the jobs of Adam Andrasco, head of US Artistic Swimming, is recruiting men. About 100 companies are participating in the U.S., up from 25 just four years ago, he said.
“We don’t have a good foundation for growth,” said Andrasco. “You didn’t have a farm system.”
Several countries, including the United States, Japan, Germany and China, have male swimmers competing in the World Championships. Spain and Italy also have top competitors.
“There aren’t many countries that have strong men” in international competition, Mr. Andrasco said, noting that men often lack the flexibility to compete. “So we may not see many male swimmers at the Olympics. I have.”
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“At the moment, women are much better than men when it comes to this sport,” he added.
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Another concern, apparently unfounded, is that women might resent men who participate in the sport. At the Olympics, men compete only in team events. A team can have up to 8 members, with up to 2 males. That is, men may exclude some women.
Men are not required to participate.
When asked about the harshness, two-time Olympian Anita Alvarez replied, “No, not at all.”
Alvarez has passed out twice during competition in the past two years and has had to be resuscitated. She is cleared to compete with no diagnosis other than physical or mental exhaustion. It is also suspected that she held her breath underwater for long periods of time.
Men can add physicality to their routines, and their presence can lead to a wider audience. Alvarez also credits May to the choreographic skills she learned at Cirque du Soleil.
“Having both men and women participate will make it more open to boys and girls who dream of competing in the Olympics, and to parents who want to start their own children,” Alvarez said.
She dropped her training routine, but terrified men and women alike.
“We train for eight or more hours a day and tread water all day,” she said. “You have to be able to count the hours and work on the music. You have to be able to observe your patterns and maintain your line. You haven’t touched the bottom, there’s a lot of stuff that people don’t see.”
And more men will try it from now on.
© 2023 Canadian Press