Breaking Barriers: Male Athlete Eyes Historic Participation in Artistic Swimming at Olympics

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The mere mention of “Saturday Night Live,” particularly the iconic 1984 skit featuring Martin Short, is enough to solicit a chuckle from Bill May. Short portrays one of two brothers attempting to navigate the waters of what was then known as synchronized swimming, a sport exclusively reserved for women at the time, as they strive to compete in the Olympics.

The scene is unforgettable: Short, earnestly facing the camera, audaciously confesses, “I don’t swim.” Moments later, he is spotted donning an outrageously orange life vest in the pool. The skit, while pure satire, effectively exemplified the culture of those times when the mere thought of men participating in synchronized swimming was a laughing matter.

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Time has a funny way of turning the tables. Today, the sport, now referred to as artistic swimming, has evolved, welcoming male athletes to compete right alongside their female counterparts. The first such competition is slated for August in Paris, where both men and women will vie for the gold at the Summer Games.

Bill May, now a 45-year-old resident of California with a keen eye on that historic opportunity, is waiting with bated breath for the final word coming from a five-member panel. They will decide this Friday if May will make the cut for the eight athletes (and one alternate) competing in the team event representing the USA.

Contrary to perceived expectations, May harbours no resentment towards the “SNL” skit from four decades ago. In fact, he appreciates any and all spotlights on artistic swimming, the sport that has dominated his life. He even jokingly contemplates meeting Martin Short someday, coaxing him into a pair of floaties, and sharing a few laps around the pool.

May commented on the comedy sketch, “It’s hilarious. That lightheartedness is really what acknowledges a sport,” he said. “It may look silly, but it’s also saying, ‘OK, you know it does take time; you can’t just walk in and do any sport.’ So, I think any publicity is great for our sport.”

May’s name became globally recognized when he helped the United States secure a place at the Olympics in the team event at the Aquatic World Championships in Doha, Qatar this past February. This marked the country’s first qualification since 2008. It is anticipated that if he indeed competes in Paris, he will likely be the only male participant, as Italy’s top male athlete in artistic swimming, Giorgio Minisini, was excluded from his country’s Olympic plans in April.

May, alongside Adam Andrasko, the CEO of USA Artistic Swimming, emphasizes that his participation is not only about competition but advocating for inclusivity in a sport that was previously exclusively female.

May brims with optimism for the future of the sport. He believes that the inclusion of men in artistic swimming at the Olympics can spark inspiration among aspiring athletes, regardless of their gender. Through his journey, he hopes to instill the belief that, with hard work and big dreams, anyone can aspire to be at the Olympics someday.

An unforgettable moment in May’s life was when he received a phone call on December 17, 2022, at exactly 9:42 p.m., while in his kitchen. The call was to inform him that male artistic swimmers were granted permission to compete in the 2024 Games.

May has always had a love for the sport, starting from the tender age of 10 after his sister introduced it to him. His journey includes performances with Cirque du Soleil and coaching at Santa Clara Artistic Swimming. His name has become a beacon of inspiration for many young athletes, like 18-year-old Megumi Field, who dubbed him a “huge name” in artistic swimming.

Andrasko, the CEO of USA Artistic Swimming, views May’s potential participation in the Olympics as an opportunity to expand the popularity and participation of artistic swimming. The inclusion of men in the sport not only breaks gender norms but also serves as a new, compelling storyline that could spur its popularity.

For May, the opportunity represents not only personal achievement but also a chance to complement his fellow athletes and to prove that anyone with enough perseverance can achieve their dreams.