Bill May was swimming his final competitive solo routine when he reached out to the crowd.
He had told his Santa Clara Aquamaid teammate Christina Jones, then 16, that he would dedicate his last pose to her at the 2004 U.S. National Championships, a symbolic “handing over” of the top position on the team. After years of success, May was retiring from synchronized swimming, having been offered the lead role in Cirque du Soleil’s production on “O” on the Las Vegas Strip.
May had proved his talent in the sport several times over: 14 U.S. national championships and even more international titles in France, Germany, Italy and Switzerland. A trailblazer in a predominantly all-woman sport, he became the first male to win a national title in the U.S. and was named USA Synchro’s Athlete of the Year in 1998 and 1999. He added numerous duet titles and won a silver medal with Kristina Lum at the Goodwill Games in 1998.
He was going out on top with a final nod to the future of his beloved sport.
“He saw where I was watching his solo from and reached out toward me. It was a very special moment that I will always remember,” Jones said. “Little did I know, over a decade later, we may be competing together at the World Championships!”
Ten years after May’s final competition, FINA added mixed-gender events to its international championships, starting with the 2015 FINA World Championships in Kazan, Russia, July 24-Aug. 9.
And May is ready for his comeback.
“The addition of mixed duet is something I began to wonder if I would ever have the opportunity to see become an event. It’s hard to imagine it’s actually happening when I am still able to return to competition,” May said. “I retired from competition very fulfilled and content with the experiences I was able to have. I had such great support from my family, friends, coaches and entire synchronized swimming community.
“However, now that an event is being introduced into FINA competitions, I feel as though the years of hard work that all men have put into synchronized swimming are finally making a difference. The sport is finally recognizing that it can be a very beautiful and athletic sport with both men and women alike.”
May will take part in USA Synchro’s Mixed Duet Trials in Moraga, Calif., on Feb. 10 for a spot at the World Championships. He plans to swim the technical program with Jones and the free program with Kristina Lum Underwood.
“Both of these girls are retired synchronized swimmers and Olympians who are returning to competition to swim by my side on this incredible journey of representing the United States as the first mixed duet at the FINA World Championships,” May said. “I am a pretty lucky guy.”
The selected mixed duet will be part of the U.S. delegation at the world championships and be members of the national team. The mixed duet athletes will train in Las Vegas most of the time but will also train with the rest of the team at the training center in Moraga once a month.
Despite his success in synchronized swimming, May faced a big obstacle: He wasn’t allowed to compete in several FINA-sanctioned events. He was barred from the 1999 Pan American Games, world championships and the 2004 Olympic Games because of his gender.
May’s coach at the time, Chris Carver, told ABC News in 2004: “Let me tell you this: He not only would have made the (Olympic) team, he would have been among the very top of the competitors on the U.S. team.”
FINA’s recent decision to add mixed duet is a welcome change to May and his former duet partners.
“I am happily surprised by the rule change, but unfortunately, I am not surprised that it took so long,” May said. “There wasn’t an outlet for men to compete, so many men who wanted to continue in synchronized would retire because they felt there were no possibilities of long-term goals.”
Said Lum Underwood: “This was something Bill and I had wanted and pushed for for many years without success. It may have taken longer than what we would have liked, but it’s a very welcome surprise.”
May and others believe adding mixed duet will help boost synchronized swimming’s popularity, likening it to figure skating and ice dancing. In fact, May and Lum Underwood watched videos of the British ice dancing pair Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean, who won gold at the 1984 Olympics, to emulate what Lum Underwood calls “their connectivity, intimacy, ease and beauty” and transfer it to the water.
“Mixed pairs will add so much to the sport of synchronized swimming, especially at an elite international level such as Worlds and the Olympics,” she said. “I believe it will appeal more to the general public and increase interest in this sport. There is a certain balance between a man and woman swimming together which creates a different dynamic than what our sport has always displayed in the past.”
“Synchronized swimming is an incredible sport, but I think the inclusion of men will give the public something they can really relate to. (Fans) will see an athletic art form that involves relationships that can truly inspire feelings in all those that watch, that are not necessarily there with only females,” May added.
May is now preparing for a shot at his first world championships. He and Jones train several hours each day while continuing to perform 10 shows a week with Cirque du Soleil’s “O” at night.
“We do a lot of technique work as well as artistic movement. We are working with many different disciplines to create an athletic as well as beautiful presentation of the mixed duet,” May said. “We will be working with many coaches from our club, the Santa Clara Aquamaids, including Chris Carver, and other coaches from all over. It will truly be a collaboration of an incredible support group that will take our mixed duet to a level the world has never seen before.”
“Allowing men to compete is such an incredible moment in the history of synchronized swimming, and I am extremely happy for Bill that he will get to be a part of this,” Lum Underwood said. “He has given so much to this sport. It was an honor to have been his partner for the many years before while trying to pursue this new direction. It means a great deal to have been asked to swim with him once again, as we finally get to see this dream come to reality.”
Bill May on preparing for his comeback
“I have been in ‘O’ for 10 years, and really recognize the blessing that synchronized swimming has given me. I have the opportunity to do what I love each and every day of my life. Although I have not competed for 10 years, I am still doing synchronized swimming each night for nearly 4,000 people. I think performing on stage has taught me a lot and will only help us in creating a masterpiece for the mixed duet.”
Bill May on his support group
“I owe (my synchro success) to a family that unconditionally supported me, as well as coaches that would not let me, being a male, stop me from trying to be the best synchronized swimmer and athlete I could be – a journey that apparently continues. I have to say I am very fortunate that even though I could not previously go to the Olympics or FINA sanctioned events, my team and coaches never once treated me as an outsider to the team. We were always a machine that worked together to reach a common goal: to be the most incredible synchronized swimming athletes we could possibly be. That is something I will always be grateful for. I will always have those memories to look back on, as the greatest gift I could ever be given, in a once female dominated sport.”
Bill May on synchro
“I believe synchronized swimming is the hardest sport in the world. There is no other sport that throws you into an unstable medium and takes away your necessity to live, the ability to breath. I love the constant challenges synchronized swimming offers. We are always trying to create and perfect something very innovative, athletic and beautiful.”
Kristina Lum Underwood on Bill May
“Bill is an extraordinary athlete and performer. He is always pushing the envelope in artistry and strives to be the best he can be. Allowing men to compete is such an incredible moment in the history of synchronized swimming, and I am extremely happy for Bill that he will get to be a part of this. He has given so much to this sport. It was an honor to have been his partner for the many years before while trying to pursue this new direction. It means a great deal to have been asked to swim with him once again, as we finally get to see this dream come to reality.”
Lum Underwood is a synchronized swimmer and team captain in “Le Reve- The Dream,” an aquatic and aerial production show at Wynn Las Vegas. She was a four-time national duet champion with May and won four international titles with him at the French, German, Rome and Swiss Opens. The pair won the silver medal at the Goodwill Games in 1998. She, a member of the U.S. Synchronized Swimming Hall of Fame, was the soloist for the national team for two years. She also competed at the 2000 Olympics.
Christina Jones on Bill May
“Although I perform with Bill on a nightly basis, we have never competed together. So far, training has been going really well. I really enjoy working with him. He has such a positive attitude and his talent is limitless. On top of that, he is the hardest worker I know. I have never competed with a man before, and it’s a nice, new, refreshing change.”
Jones currently performs in Cirque du Soleil’s production “O” at the Bellagio on the Las Vegas Strip. She competed at the 2008 Olympic Games in duet and team and represented the USA as a soloist for several years.
About USA Synchro
USA Synchro was established as a nonprofit organization in 1977, and is the United States national governing body for the sport, recognized by the International Olympic Committee, the United States Olympic Committee and FINA (Federation Internationale de Natation Amateur) – the international governing federation.
USA Synchro organizes, participates in, and promotes a variety of competitive events each year. These events begin at the local level and continue in the following categories: Senior (15 & O), Junior (15-18), Junior Olympic (19 & U), Collegiate and Masters (20+).
Swimming News courtesy of USA Synchro.