Water’s Edge

Article by TAFFY BRODESSER-AKNER/ March 30th, 2016/ Source: ESPN/ URL: http://www.espn.com/espn/feature/story/_/id/15051372/the-story-greatest-synchronized-swimmer-ever-quest-olympic-gold

The Russian, pale and sour, ballet-walks heel-toe, heel-toe onto the pool deck in his bathing suit, which is designed to look like a communist-era military uniform. It consists of shorts, a real fold-down collar, actual epaulets and a black cross-body strap for ammunition. A woman, the Russian’s partner, all nose and eyebrows in a lavender bathing suit decorated with appliqué flowers, prances out behind him tragically, and they embrace in this brightly lit arena in Kazan, at the first synchronized swimming world championship to include men. There is a TV camera here, and it projects the swimmers onto large screens for those in the cheap seats, and it immediately zooms in on the hammer and sickle insignia on the Russian’s belt so that it seems to fill the arena. This elicits an eardrum-melting roar from the crowd, where a woman in the stands puts her hand to her face. A man nods heavily with memory. Did that judge just wipe away a tear? These are only the prelims in the mixed-gender technical duet event, but one day later during the finals, the audience, many of whom are here now, will react exactly the same way, as if their hearts are being broken anew for their tragic communist pasts.

Bill May, the United States’ lone male synchronized swimmer, stands in the wings of the arena, a smile of teeth, teeth, teeth spread across his face. Bill May’s smile is a wonder. When he leaves a room, its silhouette remains, like when you close your eyes after a camera flashes and all you can see is the bulb’s yellow outline. He is still damp from his own routine, a red, white and blue warm-up suit covering his coral Speedo. If you didn’t know Bill, you’d think this big smile, the one he wears as he watches his greatest competitors slow-motion-kill the home-team crowd dead, is his real smile.

But if you did know Bill, you’d know it isn’t his real smile. How could it be? He is so close to losing the gold medal he was told he could never compete for, the medal he unretired for after a decade away from the sport. He dropped his whole life for seven months to train and travel to Russia and to stand atop the podium for what could be one final time, smiling his real smile, the one that spreads past the borders of his face so that it becomes the biggest thing about him. And here he is, different smile covering a lack of certainty he didn’t acknowledge until maybe just now.

You could argue that Bill shouldn’t be this nervous. Mixed-gender duets didn’t officially exist even a year ago, so very few countries had a man ready to swim when synchro’s governing body, Fédération Internationale de Natation (FINA), decided to allow male competitors at worlds. There are only six teams listed for the tech duet — and the other five don’t have Bill May. Everyone wants to win, yes, but this entire event is an audition of sorts too, and Bill knows that the fate of male synchronized swimming rests largely on his double-jointed shoulders. FINA brass are watching to see whether mixed-gender duets are compelling, whether people show up, whether they’re not as much of a joke as everyone had assumed they’d be all these years. If FINA deems them Olympics-worthy, it will recommend that the International Olympic Committee consider including mixed-gender as an event. Which means the winners could be headed to Rio this summer, or more likely Tokyo in 2020. Which means Kazan could be Bill’s big break — Bill, a male synchronized swimmer, the male synchronized swimmer, could finally be in the Olympics. So what that it comes a full 10 years after he retired?

In his admirable and lonely career, Bill had won just about any competition that would have him. He stood damp and shiny on the podiums of the French Open, the Swiss Open, the Rome Open, the German Open, the U.S. nationals, gold medals gleaming from his chest, his smile (teeth, teeth, teeth) transmitting victory and stick-to-itiveness to all who watched. But Bill was always stopped short of the Olympic qualifiers, even as his female partners and the teams he trained with had medals placed around their necks. Synchro is a women’s sport, but Bill was allowed to compete at many events because of the hassle it would have been to turn him away, because men can claim discrimination too, believe it or not. Yet despite that, he couldn’t get into the qualifying events for the Olympics because he couldn’t get into the Olympics because, well, synchro is a women’s sport.

Bill remained poised and persuasive. He performed and charmed, and it almost worked. Everyone liked him. Even his detractors, even the people who excluded him or didn’t speak up after they had promised to, even they tsk-tsked about what a shame it was when he retired in 2004 without a shot at worlds or the Olympics. But they are also quick to say, when the matter of discrimination comes up, that it wasn’t that they were discriminating against men. Bill didn’t represent throngs of boys fighting for equality; it was just him. You can’t change an entire sport just for Bill, right?

After 10 years away from synchro, Bill was doing fine. He had a speed-swimming team he trained with in Las Vegas, where he lived. He had two Weimaraners. He had people he loved in the Cirque du Soleil show he swam in two times each night. He had family. He was fine. He had learned to look at all he did as an accomplishment rather than a failure. He had learned to be proud to be a footnote to the sport, which is its own accomplishment, right? He was fine.

Then came Nov. 29, 2014, and Bill got word that FINA had voted to include two mixed-gender synchronized swimming events in the world championship. But word was that FINA had also started to worry about synchronized swimming losing traction at the Olympics. FINA figured some news, a rush of attention, might take synchro off the endangered list. Not to mention that the IOC president had recently called for the inclusion of more mixed-gender events.

Anyone else might have been bitter, being used and traded in FINA’s attempt to save synchro after all these years of ignoring him. But Bill’s answer? Who cares! He convinced and co-opted his former coach; recruited his (retired) former duet partner, an Olympian, for the free routine; and recruited a more recent (but still retired) Olympian for the technical. They set up schedules and pooled expenses and talked to their bosses about flexibility and their families about understanding. Then there they were, practicing for an event people never thought they’d live to see, doing it all because, what if it worked? They were adults with jobs and commitments. Yet each of them wondered: What if I could be a part of history? What if I could be the reason something changed?

Here in Kazan, the Russian cartwheels into the pool and his date flips in after him. The Russian is ostensibly going off to war, and his lady is desperately sad about it. But the storyline is hard to discern once they’re in the pool because the technical duet (unlike the free duet to follow) is a set of predetermined elements in a predetermined order that every other team performs the exact same way, so there is little interplay between any two swimmers. Their music, a joyless Mikael Tariverdiev number misnamed “17 Moments of Spring,” was edited so that it is randomly punctuated by the sounds of bombs falling and exploding — not a great sound in an arena at an international sporting event, but by the second minute, you quit ducking for cover. At the end of the two minutes, they are both in a dead man’s back float, and the crowd goes wild all over again, and Bill May’s smile, which remember is not a real Bill May smile, becomes even less of a Bill May smile. This wasn’t the plan. The plan was that Bill would do what he does, which is dazzle and win and beat the Russians. But this routine was so good (and in the Russians’ home pool, no less) that it was hard to imagine even Bill topping it.

The music stops. The crowd stands. 2015 marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, and the Russians are sentimental about their communist past, no matter the sport.

It is common knowledge that judges score more strictly at the start of an event (and the Americans went second, the Russians last). It is common knowledge that there is a real home-court advantage to synchro (and we are in Kazan). It is common knowledge that Russians have been crushing Americans in synchro since the U.S. released its grip on the gold in 2000 (and remains baffled as to how to get the gold back). And it is common knowledge that once the Russians dominate a sport, they are unwilling to let go.

The Russians take it: 88.8539, a full 2.1431 points higher than the score of Bill and his partner, Christina Jones. Bill smiles as he leaves the arena, and he smiles on the shuttle back to the athletes village. Yes, it was only the prelims, but that Russian routine, hoo boy. Only once he is behind that closed door does Bill May, the great wet hope of synchronized swimming, let himself consider the possibility of his storybook career ending with a loss.


It seemed like a trick. It was as if a video had been paused and the image in front of you was frozen. But, no, this was live. Bill was 15 years old, at the qualifying meet for the national age-group championship, when he dove into the water for his solo routine and stopped in an upside-down vertical position without his lower body being fully immersed in the water. That’s right, take a moment, picture it: He dived into the water, and once partially under, once he was in up to the waist, Bill stopped his lower body from entering the pool — he froze, he halted acceleration, he defied inertia. The audience also froze, in surprise and awe, because how do you do that? How do you dive in and just stop without your entire body getting wet? How was it possible to see Bill May, the top of his shiny metallic suit still poking out of the water, in suspended animation?

The routine went on, a music medley that included the themes from Exodus and Dances With Wolves, and Bill did a spin rotation, dropping his leg into a side crane. But at that point, who cared about the rest of the routine? Whose brain was not still processing the feat? The only person who had ever done it before was another swimmer, Patti Rischard, a native of Tonawanda, many years before. Bill had done it as a sort of tribute, he says now. But maybe he also did it to see whether he could. Maybe he also did it to prove that he could.

The meet ended, and the winners were called to the podium. Bronze mounted and got her medal. Applause. Silver, who had been gold the year before, mounted. Applause. Bill got up there — strong and tall and disconcertingly male and beaming his Bill May smile — and just as the top medal was being placed over his head, he and everyone else heard booing from the audience. It was Silver’s father, furious with the righteous anger of a man whose daughter had been edged out by a boy in an all-female sport.

No one was quite like Bill May. His likability began in the water. He knew how to hold a crowd, which is something a synchronized swimmer must do out of necessity, since no matter who you are, you are small in a pool, and you are always partially submerged, and so you have to find ways to be big. Bill could flick his pointed foot for comical effect or roll his wrist for a dramatic one. He knew how to move his head to demonstrate longing or excitement. Gender aside (or maybe gender to the point), no one had the same strength and swiftness to battle the water without being overtaken by it, to propel himself out of the pool with force despite not being allowed to touch the bottom. Nobody just plain didn’t tire out the way Bill just plain didn’t tire out.

Still, no matter how much the world of synchro liked him personally, and no matter how much his female competitors admired his love of their sport, Bill was barely tolerated. Someone — he doesn’t know who — called Bill’s house and told his mother he was a sicko and a pervert for insisting on spending all day with girls in their bathing suits. Bill and his coach, Chris Carver, considered litigation after some competitions wouldn’t allow him in, but they didn’t have the money. Bill’s camp had been optimistic, but the others’ optimism waned while Bill’s still glowed with the painfully American idea that life could be fair, that you could work hard and want something and that just the working and the wanting could win over hearts, knock down barriers and cause change in even the most ossified institutions.

The people who cared most about Bill worried. Dee O’Hara, Bill’s first synchro coach, feared that he had no future. “Just do swimming,” she pleaded. Speed-swimming. Or diving. Or gymnastics. She’d never seen such a gifted athlete. She didn’t understand why he’d waste this kind of talent on a sport that, yes, she loved, but that was never going to welcome him as anything but an oddity and a hassle.

To Bill, though, none of those other sports was synchro. None of them was an opportunity to show how athletic you could be in the water and perform something that could elicit emotion from an audience. None of it was the costumes and the makeup and the music. Bill May lived for the costumes and the makeup and the music. He lived for the water. He was a performer, and an athlete, and both of those aspects of himself were too big to ignore. What better sport to showcase them in the water than synchronized swimming?

He should have felt discouraged, maybe even wanted to call it quits. But back when he was a young trainee, his coaches would goad him to excel by chiding him, telling him he wasn’t a world champion yet, and that spurred him on, the idea that other people thought he could be a world champion, that even though he wasn’t allowed into the world championship, here were people who knew what they were talking about using his name in the same sentence with “world championship.” Here were people who believed that the time would come and they would all see Bill compete.

So he knows how well-regarded he was and still is as a swimmer. He still has all those medals. But as time went on, this was the thought that kept him hungry and began to eat at him: If you believed you belonged on a sport’s biggest stage but were banned from that stage, wouldn’t you always ask: Did I really belong?

Those who witnessed Bill May at his peak can say that he was the best, that he would have blown everyone out of the deep and gelatin-spattered water, but he’ll never really know (and we’ll never really know) unless he is allowed to compete in the Olympics, or even just the world championship. Which is to say that as Bill began to train for worlds, he didn’t quite know either.

….. Read More at http://www.espn.com/espn/feature/story/_/id/15051372/the-story-greatest-synchronized-swimmer-ever-quest-olympic-gold

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