Sometimes it just takes one person to initiate a major change. But it takes time. In the world of synchronized swimming, that person is Bill May.
May, who left home at age 16 to live with a host family in Santa Clara, Calif., where he could train, has for years been an advocate for male inclusion in the heretofore all-female world of the sport. And finally, there are signs that the tide is turning.
During a panel discussion at the recent International Swimming Federation (known as FINA or the Federation Internationale de Natation) congress in Ontario, Canada, longtime sports activist and Olympic swimming gold medalist, Donna de Varona, pointed out that diversity will result in growth for the aquatics community.
Synchronized swimming remains as the only FINA sport not equally represented by both sexes. As of the most recent 2016 Olympics in Rio, men are not allowed to compete in synchronized swimming events.
May started the sport by training and performing with two New York teams, the Syracuse Synchro Cats and the Oswego Lakettes. After moving to California, he tried out for the nationally renowned Santa Clara Aquamaids and earned a spot on their junior squad.
It was 1996 and as a young gay man, he was undaunted by the challenges facing him in a sport that wasn’t accepting of men. He wouldn’t be allowed to compete in most sanctioned events with his teammates because of his gender.
“I was pretty stubborn and was determined to stay in the sport I loved,” May says. “I still wanted to do it even if it meant I would never be allowed to compete in the Olympics. I took inspiration from friends on the swim team that continued to compete even though they would never make it to the Olympic level.”
May gained approval from FINA to compete in duet events in several competitions such as the 1998 Goodwill Games (silver), the 1999 Swiss Open (gold) and the 1999 French Open (gold). He was named the U.S. Synchronized Swimming Athlete of the Year in 1998 and 1999 and would go onto win the Grand Slam at the 2000 Jantzen Nationals.
Because of the lack of support he received from his own sport’s national federation, he was not allowed to compete at the 2004 Athens Olympics as they never filed for an inclusion. The President of the United States Synchronized Swimming Federation at the time, Ginny Jasontek, stated, “We cannot allow men to compete in a women’s sport.”
Bill May traveled to Athens in 2004 as a spectator to cheer on his teammates and then gracefully retired from the sport. By the next year, he was performing five days a week, two shows a night in the Las Vegas water-based production “O” by Cirque Du Soleil.
Fast-forward to November, 2014 when the news arrived that FINA had passed an inclusion to allow for the first time, two mixed-duet events at the 2015 FINA World Championships in Kazan, Russia. It was a major first step for a possible inclusion in future Olympics. A mad scramble ensued to reunite May with his former free routine partner, Kristina Lum Underwood, and find a new partner in Christina Jones for the technical routine.
With only eight months to train and with Underwood seven months pregnant, they had their work cut out for them. When the time came, they faced down nine teams on the world stage in Kazan with May and Jones winning the gold in the mixed-duet technical routine and May and Underwood taking the silver in the mixed-duet free routine. It was a long-awaited triumph just for May to compete in a sanctioned synchro world championships.
“After spending two weeks at the world championships, I realized that I wanted to see more mixed-duet teams competing and I wanted to see more mixed teams swimming differently than their female counterparts,” May says.
Now that the ball is rolling again, May is determined to push for mixed duets in the Olympics. He is one of many people who are working with U.S. Synchronized Swimming, FINA and the International Olympic Committee for inclusion. The 2016 Rio Olympics have passed by and the target is now for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
Both of May’s mixed-duet partners retired after the 2015 World Championships in Kazan and he began the search for a new partner shortly after returning to Las Vegas. He didn’t have to search far as his future duet partner had been swimming right in front of him all along.
Kanako Kitao Spendlove won a silver medal at the 2004 Athens Olympics in the synchro team competition for Japan. They had originally met at a junior open meet at the America Cup in 1996. She had been working with May at Cirque for almost 10 years and gave up her Japanese citizenship in December 2015 and became his new mixed-duet partner.
In their first competition together at the UANA Pan American Championships in Puerto Rico last September, they brought home the gold for the United States in the mixed-duet free routine. They have been named to the U.S. national synchro team through 2020.
Along with aiming for a chance to be included in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, May and Spendlove are hoping to propose new rules and requirements for mixed duets.
“The mixed-duet free program shouldn’t be judged the same way as same-sex duets. We have connections, lifts and throws that they don’t include in same-sex duets,” May says. “What we are doing takes more strength not to mention that the roles are different, as opposed to being a mirror image. We also don’t want to be a direct comparison to same-sex duets as it would be a hindrance to growth.”
A few months after their success in Puerto Rico, May and Spendlove headed to Panama to host a mixed-duet synchro clinic. It was an attempt to draw more of the Americas into the sport as it is already gaining momentum in Europe.
Currently the duo is training four hours a day, six days a week in the pool along with their duties performing with Cirque. Their next big competition is the FINA World Championships in Budapest, Hungary in July where they will compete in both the technical and free mixed duets. Hopefully, that will bring them a step closer to inclusion in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
“Both of us love this sport, love performing and want to add a new dynamic to synchro,” May says. “We want to raise the level of athleticism and artistry to new heights.”