Skip to main content

Vertical Descent

Adventures in Synchronized Swimming

ISSUE:  Winter 2016

Nevada was four years into a record drought that showed no signs of ending, and I had come to the West in search of mystical water and the mermaids that tamed it. The sun was setting in the Mojave Desert, and the wide-open sky was garish in blues and pinks, competing with the neon lights coming into focus in the hazy Las Vegas dusk. I had spent the better part of a week on the Las Vegas Strip, face-to-face with a yawning mirage of American capitalism. I had seen people wearing Minions costumes in 100-degree heat. I had seen a Zach Galifianakis impersonator, with a fake baby forever Björned to his chest, posing with tourists. I had seen showgirls meticulously remake their faces with more makeup and glitter than I knew existed on this Earth. I had seen elderly people in sequins and their best glamour-wear, spending their days and nights in the purgatory world of the casino floor, pumping dimes into slots underneath electronic screens for hours on end. I had seen the restaurant outpost of every celebrity chef with a cooking show on television, Giada’s girlish handwriting on the facade of The Cromwell hotel.

That week, I watched athletes and dancers pull off impossible enterprises—dazzling feats of the human body, swimming and diving and bending with a strength that I hadn’t even imagined was possible. At the aquarium at the Silverton Casino, mermaids floated in a tank, waving to enamored children who pressed their faces pressed against the glass. The swimmers’ hair trailed through the water alongside schools of fish. At a scheduled time, they performed a series of synchronized-swimming moves in the tank—circling backward, flipping like dolphins—and swam to the bottom to take a hit of oxygen. Then onto the next task: cuddling with manta rays so that the animals’ cartoonish faces on their white underbellies amused the crowd. A series of uniformly bald men, like Ken dolls come to five-seven life—muscle on muscle on muscle, a LEGO stack of bodies—threw themselves into the water, dangled on wires, and took astonishing flips off a silver tree that had emerged, fully formed, from an erstwhile stage: The tank was constantly morphing. I worried that some performers would die as they flipped from one side of a sculpted-wire pirate ship, only to be caught by their partners at the last minute. I watched synchronized swimmers take their sport beyond the conscripted rules of the Olympics, to a place of wild and weird art, each contorting her body into something that no longer appeared human, that tricked the brain into seeing people as something else—a cat pretzeled, cleaning itself; a head wandering below its own legs and feet; a clown, depressed, figuring out how to split his body apart.

I had come in search of the meaning of synchronized swimming in modern America. Over the course of a week, I had gotten bored with the human body’s physical excellence. Maybe that was because, despite the spectacle at this level, even flawlessness becomes mundane. Without the threat of failure, watching people perfectly execute the seemingly impossible becomes, to be blunt, boring after an hour of wonder and shock. But beyond the bright lights of the Strip, and the hundred-dollar-a-ticket shows meant to lure in tourists, between bouts of gambling and bingeing at buffets, the true heart of synchronized swimming beckoned in the distance. I just needed to find it.

To say that synchronized swimming is a unique sport is to understate the case. If sport, in the truest, downright ancient-Olympic sense of the word, is embodied by a lone warrior running to Marathon to tell the troops news of war, then “synchro,” as it’s called by insiders, is its opposite. It’s not a war game. It’s not a show of superior speed and cunning in comparison to a direct opponent. It developed over the last hundred years, and it’s obstensibly, on the surface, showbiz. Yet while showbiz may be in its origins, synchro is a celebration of extraordinary athletes proving that they can perform with skill and beauty in the water. It combines dance, gymnastics, choreography, originality, and artistry in order to tell a story. The competition, as it is, is seeing who can be more perfect in the water.

Living on the East Coast, there aren’t many chances to see a full-on synchronized-swimming spectacular. For a small, passionately followed sport, like attracts like, and the places in America where synchronized swimming flourishes are on the West Coast and in scattered pockets formed around successful collegiate teams, such as Ohio State. When the World Masters Championships was slated for July 2014 in Montreal, I knew this was my opportunity to see an array of synchronized swimmers in action, to start to figure out just what has drawn a century of women to this sport.

In the morning, at the Parc Jean-Drapeau, the deck was full of women. Women, as far as the eye could see, grooming one another like monkeys: pairs holding mirrors for each other with bent legs scrunched on the ground, drawing faces based on their reflections, making the lines of eyes and mouth pop. Women sat in rows, each combing the hair of another ahead of her, taming strands into tight ponytails, shellacking heads with a paintbrush dipped into a can with sticky Knox-brand gelatin (not Jell-O—this is important) in its liquid form. “Knox” is a verb in synchro. Some women use it as a face peel, others eat “Knox blocks” for their diet. And it would all come out in scalding hot water.

After this ritual was finished, swimmers emerged from the locker rooms and the pool deck at the aquatics center with helmet heads, hair stiff and every bit of it in place. They were in uniform, ready to perform as big-eyed Robert Palmer girls in bathing suits. It was very easy to come down with a case of face blindness at a synchronized-swimming match, confusing a middle-aged Japanese woman for a California teenager. What was most striking, however, was how insular synchro was—as one swimmer put it, it’s the sort of sport passed down from mother to daughter, taken up by sisters and other family members. I lost count of the family pairs I’d met: mothers, daughters, and sisters. 

FINA, the “Fédération Internationale de Natation,” is the official governing body for water sports throughout the world. The World Championships competition, held in odd-numbered years, when there isn’t a Summer Olympics, is where elite swimmers compete to be the best in the world. You have to qualify in previous competitions to make it to the World Championships. Confusingly enough, while the 2016 Rio Olympics loom, these competitions are not ones that potentially qualify future Olympians. Rather, those athletes are winning their way through other competitions, including the 2015 Pan-American Games. The World Masters Championships, on the other hand, are for all adults: You don’t have to qualify for the competition. Yet you are still, potentially, the best in the world, and you are competing against a self-selected group. 

The World Masters competition in 2014 was made up of amateurs ranging from ex-Olympians to hobbyists who wanted to take up swimming again after a break, from nonagenarians to twentysomethings. There were solo swims (yes, every synchro swimmer notes the irony), duet pairs, and teams that could range from four to eight people. Each day’s program ticked down in order of age, from senior swimmers to baby-faced twentysomethings. The older swimmers stuck to music that would be considered “classic” in the synchronized-swimming world, whether it was Louis Armstrong performing “What a Wonderful World,” or a classical selection from the likes of Aaron Copland, or the orchestral theme to “My Fair Lady.” In this tasteful array, one performance stuck out. The brassy melody of “But I Am a Good Girl,” a song belted by Christina Aguilera in the forgotten musical Burlesque, streamed through the speakers. Aguilera named brand after brand: “The shoes YSL / The bag is Dior / Agent Provocateur…” She sang of “the Chateau” (Marmont) and more that evoked luxury alongside the faux-innocent line: “What? I am a good girl!” 

While this song played, a septuagenarian dove into the pool. She was made up in a red, sequined swimsuit, with red accents on her face to match. Her long legs made an elegant line in the air. She swam across the pool in a diagonal, her right leg extended in the air in the ballet-leg position: one of the building blocks of synchronized swimming, wherein a swimmer floats flat on her back in the water, a straight line on the surface, and extends one leg into the air. Done perfectly, it creates a ninety-degree angle with the water. This swimmer had the right technique, and she switched, gently, between positions, shifting from a single ballet leg to legs like a mermaid fin as the song moved from the verses to the lively chorus.

The artistry of this woman’s performance was starkly different from that of the younger swimmers. As the day went on, the routines became faster, quicker, and exponentially more difficult. Up-tempo songs like KC and the Sunshine Band’s “Boogie Shoes” played again and again. Teams pantomimed their routines in nervous packs of two to eight on a spare patch of grass, a practice called “land drills” that looks like a cluster of air-traffic controllers signaling in semaphore.

A woman who swam for Japan in the 2004 Olympics, and worked as a contortionist for O by Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas, came out in elaborate tiger makeup with her hair down, giving a performance of such drama and spirit—she was able to pull her arms back at an angle that would make the average person yelp—that she got a ten from one judge. Older swimmers in the crowd sniffed that some performers are too theatrical these days, going to extremes to tell their story.

Synchronized swimming is not a fixed sport. It’s open to change because the competitions are so subjective, and, politically, the sport’s proponents know that it needs to stay relevant. This means turning to amazing stunts of staggering skill as opposed to precisely executed, prissy perfection. At the World Masters, the morning was for water ballet, essentially, and as the hours went on, the spins got faster and faster as the younger crowd approached the fun and frippery of synchro with an athletic determination to become a spinning top, springing out of the water like a fish avoiding the line.
One woman from the 25-34 Team swim category stuck in my head. I was sitting with the Unsyncables of La Mirada, California, finally close enough to see the effort in each swim. This woman was part of the corps. This particular team was full of small women, whippet-thin, the type who could be thrown with ease, who looked like teenagers. Unlike the rest of the team, the woman stuck out because of her soft, round, average body—a parenthesis surrounded by bobbing exclamation points. Seven women formed a circle in the lower corner of the pool, closest to my vantage point, and lifted the smallest woman out of the water by her feet. She had her hands on her hips, looking like a superhero. But the average-sized woman caught my eye. She was treading water along with the rest of the corps and making a palpable effort to stay above the water. I could see her forearm muscles shaking as she held up the woman in the center, providing invaluable support to her left heel. It was noticeable as a new thought occurred to her, and her open grimace turned into a smile.

The woman was performing a miraculous feat. She may not have been part of the best team at the meet, but the struggle on her face as she worked showed me just how hard synchronized swimming can be, even for a practiced swimmer. During that week, water-polo players, also competing in FINA’s Masters program, would sneak over to the synchro stands to see the spectacle. A burly man in a T-shirt representing his team (the Ancient Mariners) watched with great interest, admitting just how difficult synchronized swimming was in comparison to water polo. He couldn’t play water polo with a smile on his face, he noted. 

I was in Las Vegas on a mission to see one of the best synchronized swimmers in the world: Bill May. In July 2015, May won the Technical Mixed Duet with his partner, Christina Jones. That win was a historic one; he was the first man in synchronized swimming to be a part of a world championship-winning team since FINA added the Mixed Duet competitions to the 2015 slate. It was a lifelong journey for May, who has been swimming at the elite level since 1998. He was a national champion and a perennial human interest story: the champion male synchronized swimmer on the Santa Clara Aquamaids who would have been a formidable competitor in the 2000 and 2004 Summer Olympics if men were allowed to compete in synchronized swimming at the Olympics.

High-level synchronized swimming is like a small town. Everybody knows everyone; everyone has a story about everyone else. And every synchronized swimmer I’ve talked to either knows of May’s talent or knows May personally. The ones who know him personally have nothing but glowing things to say about him: He’s the best, a real champion, an example of the best in synchronized swimming. Mention his name to any synchronized swimmer and—even when their connection to May is tenuous—they’ll rave about him, saying he’s a “great person,” words that sound facile at first and like the gospel truth by the eighth time. I can count five separate people all saying the same thing: May is “wonderful.” It’s a “crime,” some say, that he hasn’t been in the Olympics. At the end of the day it’s just a case of rules—a case of rules that are absolutely arbitrary.

The story of May is the story of a man who’s been in love with something for more than two-thirds of his life. He started in synchronized swimming as a ten-year-old in Cicero, New York. He was a gymnast who wanted to do what his sister did in the pool, and he ended up swimming for the Syracuse Synchro Cats and the Oswego Lakettes. He quickly outgrew the limitations of synchronized swimming on the East Coast. On the West Coast, the weather system meant that one could practice outside year-round, and experienced and flashy synchronized swimmers made for strong teams with excellent coaches. At sixteen, he moved across the country to Santa Clara, California, where he swam with the legendary Aquamaids, a team that has won plenty of national titles and has produced a high percentage of Olympians.

In 1998, he won the Duet event at the US National Championships with his partner, Kristina Lum. It was the first in a serious championship run: Lum and May took silver in the 1998 Goodwill Games. May was banned from the Pan-American Games due to his sex. FINA let him swim in certain competitions, and he and his partners won gold at the Swiss Open and the French Open. He was named the US Synchronized Swimming Athlete of the year in 1998 and 1999. In a 1997 profile in Outside magazine, May introduced himself saying, “My Name is Bill. I’m an Aquamaid,” and comes across as a man obsessed—he shows a reporter his ability to do the splits, his collection of American-themed objects; he deflects compliments, and he makes the point that the writer should be covering another Aquamaid, Becky: “She’s like the best ever.”

May is at his best in the water. He can hold his breath for nearly four minutes underwater. His body is amazingly straight every time he does a vertical descent, with the elegance and exactitude of a corkscrew opening a bottle of wine. He can do moves named after fish and birds in seemingly infinite variations, adding a 360 spin, an upside-down 720 spin, and he brings an enviable joy to performances.

“He set the standard for athleticism in this sport,” the announcers say in a video recording of May’s 2002 solo routine for Nationals. May wears a one-piece beige bodysuit, which, following the theme of “Heartbeat,” is printed with the musculature of the human body. He does a fantastic, athletic, difficult routine, telling the story of a human body through vivid leg motions, with figures like the “barracuda airborne-split” and the “porpoise-twist spin.” There’s a yell toward the end on the soundtrack, and May nearly gets his whole body out of the water then flops onto the surface, portraying death. Throughout the performance, his face matches the movement of the piece—wide-open in a smile when it’s called for, but adding levels of fear, mood, and doom as the “body” decays.

Synchro doesn’t translate that well to video. The performance is calibrated for the audience, not a camera. The camera is often too static, missing the mathematical motions of the swimmers’ bodies and reducing them to heads and legs, nothing else. Yet despite that handicap, May’s did-he-just-do-that? athleticism still scorches through the old recording: He hyperextends his shoulders, pulling his linked hands around his body in a dance-like motion—a move that would send most people to the hospital. May is so in control that when he enters and exits the water he knows how to leave a small wake, controlling the water rippling forth from his routine. 

It’s hard to quantify the joy that emanates from May’s performance. When he swims, his is a body doing exactly what it was made to do: Years of practice and toil meet with moments of inspiration and grace. 

It took the length of the twentieth century for synchronized swimming to evolve from pageantry to an Olympic sport. Annette Kel-lerman, an Australian championship swimmer of the early 1900s, was known as the “million-dollar mermaid” for her pioneering antics. She was a proponent of the one-piece bathing suit for women, and was arrested on Revere Beach, Massachusetts, in 1907 for her audacity. That scandal kicked off a fusillade of publicity that made Kellerman a known quantity on the vaudeville circuit. Earlier, she performed a water ballet in a glass tank at the London Hippodrome, an act that she would take around the world, from music hall to music hall. Later, when she performed her water ballet at the New York Hippodrome, the performance went down in the books as the first true example of synchronized swimming. Water ballet, or the idea that a woman, or a group of women, could move through the water, swimming prettily with extended arms and uniform movements isn’t what synchronized swimming is today, after globalization and the Olympics. But water ballet was what synchronized swimming was during Annette Kellerman’s time. She then made a series of aquatic-adventure silent films, in which she was particularly noticeable for her nudity.

Water ballet traveled around the world as a pretty exhibition. A water-ballet club was started at the University of Chicago in 1923 by Katherine “Kay” Curtis, who would end up writing the first rule book for synchronized swimming and developing the sport with the Kay Curtis Modern Mermaids, who performed at the 1934 World’s Fair in Chicago. The first rule was “Competitors may be men or women or both.”

While the sport was developing, a seventeen-year-old champion swimmer from Los Angeles, Esther Williams, made an important decision: She retired. Previously, she had won the national championship in the 100-meter freestyle. With that success, she was featured as an all-American pinup in scads of newspapers and LIFE magazine, a cheerful brunette beauty with a great grin and long limbs, sheer inspiration for the troops.

Williams had been on course to compete in the 1940 Olympics, but the games were canceled due to World War II, and Williams’s options were thin. She had gotten a D in senior-year algebra, scuttling her chances of earning a swimming scholarship to the University of Southern California. She missed the Pan-American Games due to a coach’s subterfuge. The Olympics weren’t an option. She needed a job, and worked as a shopgirl at the I. Magnin & Company department store on Wilshire Boulevard. She made $76 a month.

A month into her career as a shopgirl in the sportswear department, a job that involved presenting clothes to customers, picking up the discarded clothes, and occasionally modeling swimsuits, Williams got a phone call that would change her life. Billy Rose, the producer of a star-studded water spectacular called the Aquacade, was looking for a swimmer. The show rose to fame at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York and over the years drew more than 5 million spectators to watch Olympic champions like Johnny Weissmuller (later known as Tarzan) and Eleanor Holm swim alongside the best Olympic divers in the world. It was such a success that the Golden Gate International Exposition of San Francisco asked Rose to develop a West Coast Aquacade for the city’s own feat of engineering, Treasure Island. The stars, Weissmuller and Holm, were split up. Weissmuller went west, Holm stayed in New York, and there was an opening for a female swimmer in San Francisco.

Williams auditioned at the Ambassador Hotel in a pretty red suit. When she got to the pool, fifty girls in swimsuits dotted the deck. She was one of many. Until “a short little guy with slick, black hair smoking a big cigar” approached her. It was Rose, a middle-aged man who stood at about five-two. “It was the first of many meetings I would have with short men,” she recalled in her dishy autobiography, The Million Dollar Mermaid. “They tend to look more into your bosom than into your face.”

“You’re Esther Williams. I’ve seen your picture in Life Magazine,” he said. “Your Olympics have been canceled, you know.” He asked her to swim. She burned through four laps in the twenty-five-yard pool. Rose told her that she was a fast swimmer.

“That’s what I do, Mr. Rose. I’m a sprint swimmer. The U.S. 100-meter freestyle champion.”

“I don’t want fast,” he said. “I want pretty.”

“Mr. Rose, if you’re not strong enough to swim fast, then you’re probably not strong enough to swim pretty,” Williams said. He asked her to swim again, with her head and her shoulders out of the water. The swimmer said that’d take a good, strong kick, the sort of kick you have from swimming fast.

She knew her stuff. Rose offered her a job. Williams hesitated. She didn’t want to ruin her amateur standing for the next Olympics. On the other hand, it didn’t look like there’d be an Olympics for quite some time. She returned to I. Magnin, ready to call Rose back with a yes. But one question lingered in her mind: “Could I learn to swim pretty?”

A month later, Williams was training with the Aquacade team. “Swimming pretty” was swimming so that the audience could see you—with your head and your body out of the water—and creating shapes that pleased the eye. It took an unnatural movement, a series of isometric maneuvers near the surface that allowed the swimmer to appear stable in the water. Williams and her troupe swam in rhythmic unison to the music. Two, four, six, eight: a line of girls would glide across the pool with beauty and grace, a feast for the eyes.

Williams was beguiling enough that Hollywood executives came backstage after the show to see whether she’d consider a screen test for MGM. Again, Williams said no at first. She couldn’t have known that her timing would be perfect.

Twentieth Century Fox had a star in the three-time gold medal Olympian Sonja Henie. Her ice-skating musicals were a hit and a moneymaker, and rival studios like MGM wanted their own female sports star to mold. Louis B. Mayer wanted to “melt the ice, get a swimmer, make it pretty!” Executives offered Williams a Technicolor swimming musical. She continued to say no. People wondered about her. MGM had tryouts with other swimmers, like East Coast Aquacade star Eleanor Holm, who was too petite, with a Brooklyn accent that was too thick. She didn’t fit MGM’s vision of an all-American—somebody tall, somebody who popped off the screen, somebody who had “it.”

Williams, on the other hand—thwarted, would-be Olympian, retired swimmer, a shopgirl who became the lead in a water spectacular—had “it”: long limbs, a face made for makeup, the ability to swim and smile at the camera, and it was this combination that made her a very unique movie star, once she said yes to Louis B. Mayer, making her debut as the ingénue in an Andy Hardy film starring Mickey Rooney. 

During the forties and fifties, she was steadily making a movie or two a year, and she would go on to star in over twenty mid-century flicks. Many of her films featured elaborate singing routines in Technicolor: Bathing Beauty (1944), Neptune’s Daughter (1949), and her signature film, Million Dollar Mermaid (1952), a musical biography of Annette Kellerman with the last major production numbers featuring Busby Berkeley’s trademark kaleidoscopic, geometric, mathematically pleasing girl-madness in the blue water, surrounded by clouds of pink and red smoke.

Williams didn’t invent synchronized swimming. Her success, however, brought the sport into the mainstream and to the attention of a generation of girls who grew up with her grinning visage. At the same time, there were synchro exhibitions in the Pan-American Games and other competitions throughout the fifties and sixties. 

The US and Japan were dominant countries in synchronized swimming throughout much of the second half of the twentieth century, but in the late eighties and early nineties, the Russians emerged. Dawn Pawson Bean, the octogenarian force behind much of what we know as American synchronized swimming, saw the effects of this impact. The Russians touched their arms just so, she said when I saw her in Montreal in 2014, motioning with her left hand across her body, landing on her shoulder, like a military march, and in ten years, they were ascendant. Russia won all of the events at Worlds in 1998, and that was the beginning of their run, dominating the Olympics from the 2000s onward. Their version of the sport was faster, sharper, more gymnastic. It may be the version you picture in your mind.

Mention the Saturday Night Live synchronized-swimming sketch from 1984—featuring Martin Short and Harry Shearer as a pair of brothers, Gerald and Lawrence, desperate to make the Olympics, with one glaring handicap beyond being men: the fact that Short’s character can’t swim and is wearing a loud orange life jacket—to a synchronized swimmer and you will get an opinion in reply, whether that swimmer is middle-aged or so young that they weren’t even born when the sketch came out. 

It is a perfect sketch. Every line kills. It is so perfect, in fact, that it made plenty of “top SNL sketches” lists for SNL’s recent fortieth anniversary. Trumpets blare. It starts with exciting music. Shearer and Short are in the water. “I don’t swim,” Short says, with faultless-idiot enthusiasm. Shearer paints Knox onto his abundant mane with a brush, like an actress preparing for the stage. Christopher Guest cameos, in an early iteration of his Corky St. Clair persona, coaching the two buffoons on how to tell a story in the water: “You’re just pointing at him,” he barks. “Hey, you! I know you! I know you!” 

According to interviews with the actors, the sketch came from Shearer’s obsession with the idea of two men going for the gold in synchronized swimming, when that option didn’t even exist. Their take was accurate—Short’s holy fool even takes a moment to excel at deck work, the thirty seconds before a routine where a swimmer tells the story of the routine through movement on the deck.

Men have always been minor figures in synchronized swimming. That’s due, in part, to the sport’s origins in the quite feminine practice of water ballet, the stuff of Williams’s dreams. Talents such as Bill May are true outliers, and unfortunately, FINA and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) aren’t invested in letting men participate at the Olympic level: Synchro was added, in 1984, strictly so that women would have another sport.

When May was a champion swimmer, he was one in a million. Men at his level have only emerged in the last five years. After the US failed to petition for men in the Olympics in Athens in 2004, May retired from the sport and moved on to a role in O by Cirque du Soleil, performed at the Bellagio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. Since May’s retirement, men in synchronized swimming have had the occasional flicker in pop culture, including a documentary and then a Full Monty-esque fictional film about Swedish male synchronized swimmers.

In 2015, there’s a glimmer of hope for male synchronized swimmers with dreams of the Olympics. May isn’t alone in his pursuit. In fact, in Russia, there’s a young upstart: twenty-year-old Aleksandr Maltsev. He was a small child when May was winning national championships and appearing on David Letterman. But the two men have much in common; at the very least, both are wildly talented novelties bumping up against the arbitrary ceiling of FINA’s rules. Yet if Mixed Duet synchro does make it into the Olympics by Tokyo 2020, Maltsev will be a mere twenty-five years old. May will be in his early forties.

While efforts are made to broaden the field and the events in the sport, making it inclusive, there is something particularly feminine about synchronized swimming. Not just in the way that the movements are impossibly difficult but made to look easy—as women we can’t just succeed, we must succeed without appearing to exert effort—but in the way it is judged. Swimmers must lift their body weight above the water while holding a smile rigid on their face, in full makeup, while the rest of the body is submerged in water. Imagine an Olympic weight lifter asked to smile during a clean-and-jerk, or a football player required to let out a churlish laugh during a tackle. In synchro, points are deducted for frowning. Points are awarded for presentation, such as makeup. But the essence of judging itself cuts to the core of what it is to be a woman. The FINA guide for judges states: “All judgments are made from the standpoint of perfection.”   

In November 2014, May received an e-mail that changed his life. Judy McGowan, the president of US Synchronized Swimming, told him that FINA had decided to allow the Mixed Duet as an official event at the international level.

May called his former partner Kristina Lum—now Kristina Lum Underwood, and a swimmer in Le Rêve–The Dream at the Wynn Hotel. She was scheduled to have her second baby in a couple of months. She had some doubt she could get back into the required shape, but she immediately wanted to do it for him. “I didn’t want to regret anything,” Lum Underwood told “And to see him be able to achieve his dream is just something that is really important to me.” 

May then got in contact with Christina Jones, a 2008 Olympian, also a swimmer in Cirque du Soleil’s O, and the publicist for the Las Vegas synchronized-swimming events team, the Water Beauties. She immediately said yes. Lum Underwood was May’s partner for the Free Mixed Duet, and Jones worked with him on the Technical Mixed Duet, in which swimmers are required to hit a series of elements in a certain order, competing against other athletes who are doing the same elements in the same order. The free swim, on the other hand, is where swimmers can show off their originality and creativity: There are no requirements beyond telling a beautiful story with their extraordinary skills.

May and Jones reached out to Maurizia Cec-coni, an artistic coach of O. Cecconi was an Italian Olympic swimmer turned performer, who had worked with Le Rêve before transitioning into management. May asked her, “Do you think we could do this?”

It was a hard decision that was made in one second: Yes. Cecconi swam against May back around the turn of this century. They were good friends. “He’s a beautiful artist and a beautiful performer inside and out,” she said. “He’s such a sport, the kind of person you think about when you think of what sport should be. I’m very proud of who he is.”

May and Jones stayed with the show, performing twice a night, Wednesday through Sunday, getting out of the Bellagio around midnight. They added daily practices to this already-tough schedule, preparing their bodies for a world competition in a little over six months. While their jobs at Cirque meant that they were in shape, and now had aerialist talents that simply weren’t a part of their younger years, it also meant that they needed to practice the basics.

The O tagline is “Ocean of Emotion,” and when May’s social-media team was ramping up to the World Masters in Kazan, Russia, they’d share practice videos and news with an evocative hashtag: #OceanOfEmotions. It’s a silly combination of words, but it sums up May’s struggle as a swimmer. For years, he has been trying to get to the elite level. He has the talent. He has the experience. He’s done everything right, and yet circumstances led him to spend more than a decade in the proverbial wilderness.

In Summerlin, the Nevada Desert Mermaids were a sight for tired eyes. The air was thick and humid—pool air with that hint of chlorine. The team had to share their pool, with lanes set up for “speed swimmers,” as head coach Linda Tannenbaum put it. The Mermaids practice five times a week, up to four hours a day, and range in age from seven to eighteen; some of the twelve-year-old swimmers are ranked nationally. And yet they were still goofy kids, giggling and splashing in the water, sharing private jokes while a journalist watched.

Tannenbaum, a member of the Synchronized Swimming Hall of Fame, had gotten into synchro early on, through the Kansas City Sea Sprites, established in 1951, and proudly pitched as the “longest continually coached club in the country.” She had swum in the Pan-American Games. She swam at the national and international level, but by the time synchronized swimming made it into the Olympics, in 1984, she had retired. Assistant coach Ludivine Perrin-Stsepaniuk, a petite Frenchwoman with curly red hair, swam in Le Rêve as well. Le Rêve depicts a hallucinatory night in a swimming pool under the gaudy purple-and-yellow big top, during which a girl’s courting by a young man turns into a story of aerialists, a quasi-devil character dressed like Yul Brynner from The King and I, synchronized swimmers in uniform motion, and wild hordes of bald men able to dive, jump, and contort their bodies at a moment’s notice. Like most of the cast of Le Rêve, Perrin-Stsepaniuk is small in person, delicate, but she has a body sculpted out of muscle, ready to do the extraordinary at a moment’s notice.

Tannenbaum had the zeal and the authority, getting into the water to show the girls the specifics of how straight and flat one’s body had to be in the water for various positions, giving a presentation on a girl’s calf, calling it the “natural highway” that your leg had to travel to look correct during a ballet leg. Perrin-Stsepaniuk had a strong rapport with the girls, murmuring “one, two, three” into a microphone as they tried positions. As the practice wore on, they decided to do an improvisation. Over the churning, thick, metallic stomp of Michael Jackson’s “They Don’t Care About Us,” the girls freestyled in the water, picking arm movements that were stiff and robotic, reflecting the song’s aggression. A sixteen-year-old, with a matte-red lip and shiny red Esther Williams suit, felt the song the most keenly, coming up with a mini-routine to the song’s introduction. Five minutes in, Perrin-Stsepaniuk had the girls swimming in a unit, a school, imitating the sixteen-year-old’s moves. An industrial clang rang through the air, and the girls swam together, choppy and sharp, looking like robots on holiday leave until they hit the water, falling apart.

It was the greatest synchronized swimming I had seen that week. It was proof that even though synchro is mutating every minute, there’s still a core of joy and enthusiasm to be found in the sport.

None of the amateur synchronized swimmers that I knew were traveling to Kazan for the 2015 Masters. It was too much money, they said, and the event’s stats show the result:  very few competitors participate. There was one story in Kazan, and that was May’s proper debut on the world stage. He and Jones won gold in the Technical Mixed Duet. In the Free Mixed Duet, May and Lum Underwood, who swam in the 2000 Olympics—then thirty-eight, with a six-month-old baby at home—came in second, .2667 points behind the winning Russian team. 

In both the Technical and Free swim, the Russian duet team of Maltsev and Darina Valitova was a formidable rival. But in YouTube videos from Kazan, it’s clear that the opponents are very different synchronized swimmers. The Russians are young, in their teens or barely twenty, physically slight, strong, not one bit of excess weight on them. They have an advantage over the US team because they’re shaped like gymnasts. As they enter the water, they pull off a contortionist move, clasping their arms behind their backs at the elbows and moving them over their heads. Repeatedly. Try it right now—your arms will swing from your lower back to your shoulder blades, if you are mildly flexible. This move is essentially May’s signature, and a big part of his O performance. In O, he makes it look easy. Of course he did it in Kazan as well; in the deck work for the free duet, he stalks across the platform, pulling his arms over his head, graceful and aggressive at the same time. 

In comparison to Maltsev, May carries more body weight, but he’s blessed with a flexibility and charisma that goes beyond the strength of his body. In videos of both performances, he’s absolutely lit up. His big grin is easy, and his eyes are lively. It seems like he’s having the best time in the world.  May can put his body through the ringer, tread water, keep his body rail straight, and push himself out of the water with extraordinary force, nailing each position. He may be sweating, exhausted, physically spent, but you’d be forgiven for thinking he was just having fun.

Even more extraordinary, in the span of nine months, May was able to get back into world-championship shape. A year ago he wasn’t swimming competitively, and now he and his partner are the best in the world, officially sanctioned, the triumph of a life in the pool. One photo from Kazan sums up the emotion. May and Jones are lined up for the Technical Mixed Duet awards. The Russian team flanks them on the left, the Italians, who took the bronze, on the right. Maltsev glowers in the corner with his silver medal around his neck. He had gone on record claiming that he had a better swim than the Americans. May, on the other hand, is full of joy. He’s leaning hard on Jones, looking like he’s reached something that he’s been obsessing over for years. No matter what decisions are made in the next five years, there has been one shining, perfect moment where Bill May was a World Champion in synchronized swimming. 

May is one of a rare cohort, breaking the gender barrier for men. It’s easy to root for him. Easy to see in his still-ongoing story something like liberation. Easy to dream about a space where synchronized swimming could be for everyone, where gender boundaries wouldn’t exist, where a sport that uses skill and beauty to tell a story isn’t just simply for women. Imagine a future where both old men and old women can slowly cross a pool, ballet legs held aloft, trembling, where teen boys and girls can revel in their bodies as they improvise choreography, moving from the flamingo bent knee to the barracuda. Perhaps one of the first places where men and women will truly be on equal footing is when that foot is pointed, ascending above an Olympic pool. 


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Emily Kokernak's picture
Emily Kokernak · 7 years ago

Wow! Thank you for such an in-depth article of the sport!


Recommended Reading