Outside magazine, December 1997
My Name is Bill. I’m an Aquamaid.
There, shimmering brightly in the deep end of the pool, treads a pioneer. A soggy Billie Jean King, a Speedo-clad Shannon Faulkner. A brave beacon to all who would follow, America’s only male synchronized swimmer.
By Mike Grudowski
Four-thirty a.m. is an other-worldly hour in the minds of most people; a time without pity. Four-thirty is ruled by somber milkmen, coyotes polishing off poodles, insomniacs losing hope, grainy-eyed carousers on the
downslope of an all-nighter that once sounded like a brilliant idea. It’s hard to look at a mirror then. By 4:30, every last illusion has called it a night.
For Bill May, however, an 18-year-old in love, 4:30 is a joyful time. If you dropped in on Bill at that hour at his apartment in the Silicon Valley suburb of Santa Clara, California, you’d see. Not that the space itself is all that lively. Its decorating scheme combines Early Rumpus Room and Late Adolescent: a fake fireplace, a collage of snapshots leaning on a
wall, a teddy bear propped on a sofa. On closer inspection, you might notice the abundance of red-white-and-blue objects: American flag towels, flag pencils, a flag shirt and hats in Bill’s closet, flag socks in his drawers. All of which would help explain the Old Glory paint job on the crumbling Chevy Beretta permanently resting out front.
And there on the living-room floor, you’d find the cheerful and befreckled Bill May himself, performing a masochistic version of the splits, each foot plunked atop a tower of phone books and encyclopedias, his groin resting on the brown carpet. Only that and a few other clues ù a jumbo tube of diaper-rash cream on the table (to fend off sunburn during
practice), videotapes of vintage water-ballet routines stacked by the Sony ù would hint at the startling truth: Bill is in love with synchronized swimming. Bill is a Santa Clara Aquamaid.
Despite his tender years, Bill is the first synchro swimmer to become famous in a long time, maybe ever. (Does anyone remember Kristen Babb-Sprague, winner of the 1992 solo gold medal in Barcelona?) Inside Edition interviewed Bill, and People profiled him. His swimsuit hangs in the All Star Cafe in Orlando, Florida.
Having the only Y chromosome in the pool has its drawbacks. “It’s kind of hard,” Bill says. “A lot of the attention I’m getting is misplaced. There are swimmers on this team who are so much better than me. I wish people would write about, like, Becky.” Becky is former Aquamaid and longtime world champion Becky Dyroen-Lancer. “She’s like the best ever.”
Humility aside, Bill is a splendid competitor. He can scull and eggbeater and walkout his way through a solo routine set to manful Iron John drumbeats. He can albatross and barracuda, blossom and corkscrew, do the oyster and the Minerva and the reverse crane and the Eiffel Tower. He can twirl and boost and match traveling ballet legs thrust for thrust with his duet
partner, Stacey Scott. Their music: Harry Connick Jr.’s “Kiss Me.” Their theme: the rhapsodies of young love. The mood they seek to convey: “flirty.”
Bill fell for synchronized swimming nearly half a lifetime ago, when he was ten, in upstate New York. Watching his sister’s beginner class, he was captivated by the underwater spins and mirrored dolphin kicks, and begged to enroll. In time he became the pride of the Syracuse Synchro Cats.
But synchronized swimming on the East Coast pales next to its saucy California kin. After the Synchro Cats disbanded, Bill graduated to the Oswego Lakettes. Yet still he flutter-kicked and pirouetted in obscurity. And so, at 16, Bill packed his Speedos and his star-spangled socks and moved alone to Santa Clara, a town that calls to synchronized swimmers like a
smorgasbord calls to a Shriner. The Aquamaids have claimed the national championship for five years running and have landed 19 members in the Synchronized Swimming Hall of Fame. Bill was so jittery during his tryout he had trouble concentrating. But he wowed the coaches enough to make the junior A squad. He moved in with two other Aquamaids and set about chasing his
It doesn’t seem to bother bill that his sport’s stock-in-trade includes eyeliner, hair gel, and sequins. It doesn’t faze him that an ad in the national team’s magazine urges readers to “look for this group of talented women to
be wearing Avon Perfect Wear Lip Color as they go for the gold.” He doesn’t even seem to resent the fact that FINA, the aquatic-sports governing body, bans him from many international meets, including the Olympics. Given that Bill is (predictably) stronger than most of his rivals and (against all odds) as graceful and perky in water as many of them, the ban leaves his
boosters feeling a bit chapped. His coaches think he’s one of the country’s five best. “Bill is the prototype male synchronized swimmer,” says Don Chu, the Aquamaids’ trainer, somewhat tautologically. “It’s only natural they’d try to legislate against him, because he’s going to redefine the sport.”
Perhaps a little redefining wouldn’t hurt. Born early in the century, synchronized swimming didn’t stage its first competition until 1939; right around the time Hitler invaded Poland, buoyant squads from Wright Junior College and the Chicago Teachers’ College were duking it out in Iowa. The form came into its own in the forties and fifties, with former Olympic
swimmer Esther Williams grinning and stroking through several reels in such MGM vehicles as Million Dollar Mermaid, Dangerous When Wet, Skirts Ahoy!, and Easy to Love (in which “an aquatic performer tries to attract the man she loves”). Not until 1984 did synchro debut at the Olympics. Americans have dominated since then ù the team notched a perfect score of 100
in ’96 at Atlanta by swimming to music from Fantasia, eight women “emulating playing the violin…with their legs moving like a bow across the strings in long and quick strokes,” in the words of one analyst, all while upside down. But TV coverage is rare, and a few years ago McDonald’s backed out of a sponsorship deal. Moreover, the sport still hasn’t quite transcended
the snickers of onlookers who recall the Saturday Night Live spoof in which Martin Short and Harry Shearer floundered through the alleged first male synchro duet. (“I’m not that strong a swimmer,” the water-winged Short confessed.) Last year the French national team tried to shake things up with a peppy routine reenacting the Holocaust, featuring black swimsuits,
poolside goose-stepping, and music from Schindler’s List. But the French government quashed it. “This is a theme,” said an aggrieved official, “that cannot be interpreted by beautiful young girls in bathing suits.”
Onto this scene burst Bill May, unwitting poster boy for some unanticipated admirers. Early in his career, the organization U.S. Synchronized Swimming received letters from a couple of different gay-rights groups, wishing Bill well and congratulating him. Cordial gestures, but Bill never saw the letters, and he certainly never claimed to be gay; he just happened to
love synchronized swimming. In fact, Bill imagines he’ll marry a swimmer someday. “They have the same interests as me,” he explains. “Everything I would want to do, they would want to do.”
Often Bill wants to watch synchronized-swim videos. One of his favorites captured a “water show” the Aquamaids performed for the community a few years ago, before he arrived. Bill beams when he recalls the show’s plot. “There was this evil sorcerer guy,” he says, “and his name was Zoltar, and he had this evil amulet, and he was going to rule the sea, and this girl
had to go and save this other girl’s husband, because he was a statue, and they had to go through this big sea voyage to go and get this amulet and save the sea.” Bill guesses he’s watched the tape a hundred times. “It’s cool,” he says.
Bill is peering down into the glare of the pool where he spends six or seven hours every day but Sunday. On Sunday he attends the local Mormon church, naps, then often cozies up with a heaping plate of Potato Buds or some
homemade bonbons and a synchro video. On this hot Saturday afternoon, the sun beats remorselessly on the Santa Clara International Swim Center. It’s lunchtime, and dripping Aquamaids loll around the pool deck, nibbling on sandwiches and gossiping about which of the rival Walnut Creek Aquanuts have widened out lately. The coach has asked Bill to run through his
three-and-a-half-minute solo, so he stares across the pool, miming the moves in his mind.
He dives in. Strains of martial music blare from tinny speakers. The routine starts with a full twist, Bill’s legs penciling out of the pool, toes pointed like a ballerina’s.
Exactly why synchronized swimming occupies such an obscure niche in the public imagination, somewhere in the “Oddities” file alongside clog dancing and Chia Pets, is anyone’s guess. But some swimmers detect a whiff of conspiracy. Stephane Miermont, a 29-year-old Aquamaids coach who was the first man to swim with women at the national level in his native France (and
who starred as Zoltar the sorcerer in Bill’s favorite video), had expressed these frustrations earlier.
“In this country,” Stephane said, “no one understands synchronized swimming. They think it’s a joke. When we had the nationals here, there were 50 people in the stands.”
“Come on,” Bill protested. “Not 50.”
“OK, 55,” Stephane shot back. “In France, it is different. You go to the French Open, and there are 3,000 people there.”
“It’s the media,” Carrie Barton, a broad-shouldered blond Aquamaid, chimed in.
“It’s the media,” Stephane agreed.
Back in the deep end, Bill sinks slowly. Then his legs pop up into a split, still upside down. During long underwater sequences, synchronized swimmers sometimes black out, which can put a serious dent in their shot at a medal, to say the least. Bill hasn’t taken a breath in 30 seconds and counting.
It’s a bittersweet day at the pool. Stephane has landed a golden career opportunity: Cirque du Soleil, the Montreal-based acrobatic circus troupe, is launching a new show next fall at the gigantic Bellagio hotel and casino in Las Vegas. Aiming to rival Siegfried and Roy in both revenue and subtlety, the revue will combine lasers, loud music, dry ice, gymnasts,
dancers, and 15 synchronized swimmers, Stephane included, splashing and high-kicking in a pool built into the stage. Perhaps Bill will follow him there someday. For Stephane’s going-away gift, the team chipped in for a gold ring engraved with a “Z,” for Zoltar. Tears were shed.
Finally, Bill’s face resurfaces, and he gulps a quick breath. His teammates cheer him on. Bill smiles broadly, in part because he has to ù synchro protocol demands it ù but also because he’s happy. He’s young and in love. He’s living his dream.
Then Bill flips into his next move ù an aurora, starting with a partial front pike somersault into a bottoms-up double ballet leg. As he submerges, his smile still shimmers beneath the surface.
Mike Grudowski is a senior editor of Outside. Paul Tough contributed reporting for this story.
Photographs by Craig Cameron Olsen