Jeff Pearlman

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Bill May

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The greatest male synchronized swimmer in U.S. history faced much rejection in his fight to compete in the sport he loved. So what'd he do? Join the (aquatic) circus ... POSTED August 27, 2014

Screen Shot 2014-08-27 at 1.41.04 AMI’ve long been a fan of Bill May—one of the best athletes many readers have likely never heard of.

Back in the late 1990s, when I was an up-and-comer at Sports Illustrated, Bill made for great copy. He was a young athlete who competed in synchronized swimming—a sport normally reserved for women. And he was extraordinary. Bill was named the U.S. Synchronized Swimming Athlete of the Year in 1998 and 1999. However, he also battled and battled and battled for respect and admittance into events. Sometimes he won these fights (he was allowed to participate in the Goodwill Games). Often (like his efforts to compete in the 2004 Summer Olympics) he lost. However, throughout his career, he carried himself with remarkable dignity and grace.

Plus, he was an absolutely amazing jock.

These days, Bill lives in Las Vegas, where he performs in Cirque du Soleil‘s spectacular water-based show, O.

Bill May, to hell with Olympic glory. You’ve been Quazed …

JEFF PEARLMAN: You’re the best male synchronized swimmer I ever covered. You’re the only male synchronized swimmer I ever covered. I’m wondering, a decade removed from the hubbub and fuss and craziness over your involvement in the sport, can you understand the arguments and concerns of those against your participation in an otherwise all-female sport? Or are you more dumbfounded?

BILL MAY: I think being removed from competition and having even a broader spectrum of life in general makes me question even more the limitations of men in synchronized swimming. Synchronized swimming often gets a bad reputation for being all beauty and no athleticism. Some people still have the vision of Esther Williams’ movies in their head. (However, if  you watch the Esther Williams movies, she is always accompanied by a male partner). I think limiting any sport’s growth, limits awareness and numbers, and without growth the sport will die. Men add a certain partnership and masculinity to the sport that cannot be achieved with two women. “If we always do what we’ve always done, we’ll always get what we’ve always got.”

J.P.: How did this happen? How does a guy become a synchronized swimmer? What was your path from womb to pool?

B.M.: I never chose to make an uproar in synchronized swimming. I, like every kid who starts out doing a sport, was drawn to this particular sport for the pure love of it. It just happened, on accident, that it was a female dominated sport. The first day Michael Phelps began swimming, he didn’t do so with the knowledge or even the coherence  that he would one day be the most recognized athlete of all time … he loved to swim and that’s what made him who he is.

I was a gymnast and thought I would, one day, go to the Olympics for that. I would do anything to go. However …

One day my sister wanted to try this strange sport of synchronized swimming. I knew nothing about it, but I thought I would give it a try. It was a recreational program at a community poo . From the time I was 9-weeks old I was in the pool, so I already knew I loved the water. Also, there were other guys doing it, so instead of sitting and watching, I thought I would give it a try. I thought It would be just for the summer and I would go back to gymnastics and soon the Olympics. At the end of the summer a local coach asked if any of us would like to join her competitive team. I agreed, even though I was the worst of the bunch, but still wasn’t too serious. I was only 10 and I didn’t realize there were not guys all over doing it, but I enjoyed it and could still do that and gymnastics at the same time. It was a win win situation.  Over time I just became more and more serious about the sport and eventually had to choose between synchronized swimming and gymnastics, and I chose to swim.

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J.P.: Why would it have been fair to let a man swim against women in the Olympics? Aren’t there physical advantages you’d have?

B.M.: I think it is fair, at the present time, because there is not another category for men to compete separately in the Olympics, or other major international competitions. Synchronized swimming consists of a lot of physical strength and endurance, but also combines other aspects that one could argue would be an advantage to women—such as flexibility or floatability. I believe that people’s energy would be better spent not worrying about their own prejudice and misconceptions, but rather be proactive in creating an atmosphere for the growth of the sport.

J.P.: What is the joy of synchronized swimming? What I mean is—what’s the appeal? The jolt? The buzz? What did it do for you?

B.M.: Synchronized swimming is about pushing every single muscle in your body to its limits. It combines so many aspects of multiple sports that it’s a constant challenge. You have to have the grace and flexibility of a dancer, the agility of a gymnast, the aerobic capacity of a runner, and the efficiency of a swimmer. These must all be combined to perfection with out air and in an unstable, ever changing medium of water.

I also love the creation and performance aspects. You are constantly creating athletic performances to transform yourself into whatever you can imagine, to share your visions with your spectators. I have been a spider, a deconstructed human body, a storm, an exploration in the psychiatric mind, an angel and demon, and the list goes on. It’s a constant exploration of your own imagination and actually lets you show off the countless hours of hard work you have been doing.

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J.P.: You’ve worked with Cirque du Soleil since Jan. 1, 2005. This fascinates me—how’d you hear of the gig? Land the gig? And does it fill the void left when you stopped competitive swimming?

B.M.: I was actually contacted by Cirque. I work for Cirque Du Soleil’s O, which is a water show in Las Vegas. The show was created with two of the few male synchronized swimmers at the time, so when a spot opened I was fortunate enough to fit the requirements. That was actually an advantage of being a male in synchronized swimming. Due to the fact that there weren’t many male synchronized swimmers, it was gave me an amazing opportunity to be the only male in one of the most renowned shows in the world.

However, oddly enough, I only do two synchronized swimming routines in the show. The rest of the show, I spend my time moving about the stage as what could be described as a moving shoulder contortionist character called the “Waiter.” Each Cirque Du Soleil show has a core of characters that appear throughout the show and oddly bind the show together. One of them is me.

J.P.: You perform 476 shows per year—which seems the equivalent of Hall and Oates playing Maneater 476 times per year. How does it not ultimately bore the shit out of you? Doesn’t it get dull and painfully repetitive?

B.M.: At first glance, 476 shows a year seems overwhelming, but considering all the variables changes the entire outlook. Each night there is just as much of a show back stage as there is on stage. Everyone is talking about their daily life, which in the circus, is very entertaining. Also each and every show has a different audience with creates a different show or energy. We are like snowflakes … from a distance the show may look the same, but in reality, each and every show is beautiful and unique from the one before.

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J.P.: You’re approaching age 35. I’m wondering how, as a swimmer, this impacts you. Where do you feel age the most, physically? Emotionally? Does aging bother you at all? The inevitability of gray and wrinkles and card games at the senior living facility?

B.M.: I think the older I get the more experienced I get. I’m training just as hard as I ever have.  Presently, along with training for the shows, I am training for a 10K swim race, so some days I will swim more than 10k in one workout. The last 10k race I did, I became the USMS National Champion. So there is no slowing down for me.

Age doesn’t bother me, nor do I think there is an age cap for anything. I may have a few more wrinkles, but those come from sun damage, doing what I love to do … spending my days training in a pool! I train every day in flexibility, core strength, technique and physical conditioning. I believe if you continue a regime, there is no stopping the momentum, no matter your age.

J.P.: Greatest moment of your career? Lowest?

B.M.: I have so many incredible moments from my career, but I think one very special moment was my opportunity to compete at the last Goodwill Games that involved synchronized swimming. It was the only international competition on the Olympic level in which I could compete. I did a duet with one of the best synchronized swimmers of all time, Kristina Lum. It was the first time a “Mixed Pair” performed and competed on the world’s stage.

Another moment happened at a competition in Germany. There was a federation from a different country who petitioned against me swimming. The organizing committee simply told them that I was welcomed to compete, and if they didn’t like that, they could leave. It was a powerful moment because I truly felt welcomed as an athlete, rather than a “man in a women’s sport”, and that there is respect for male synchronized swimmers. This gave me hope for the future of the involvement of men in synchronized swimming.

One of the lowest moments of my career was the opportunity to go to the Pan American Games, which are like the Olympics of North, Central and South America. There was a voting whether or not to allow me (men) to compete, because there were no prior limitations, and they voted against it. There were not many men competing at that level at the time, so it was a very personal decision against my career that could have easily been voted in favor of my involvement.

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J.P.: I have to ask—gimme the grossest pool story of your lifetime …

B.M.: One of the grossest stories of all time was a day at training in Southern California. I was at the side of the pool at one moment and I saw something on the bottom. I wasn’t doing anything at the time and thought it was a rock and I would pick it up and throw it. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a rock, but a “floater,” a “chocolate log,” a “snickers bar” … yup, a big piece of poop. We all had to clear the pool, and they had to shock the pool to sanitize it with enough chemicals to burn the hair off our head. However, unfortunately we had an exhibition of routines that night so we had to swim because it was also a fundraiser. We also had a road trip planned to Vegas that night after the show. Our eyes were in so much pain and so bloodshot and clouded over, I think we were driving Braile. We couldn’t see anything for two days!

J.P.: Can anyone be great at swimming? Being serious—my daughter, for example, is pretty unathletic, with limited endurance. Does she have a shot in the pool? What about overweight kids? Etc …

B.M.: I am a complete optimist, so I think if anyone works hard enough they can achieve anything. If you’re overweight or underweight, swimming is a good source of exercise to tone and or add muscle in a very healthy form of physical fitness.

I work hours a day on my flexibility. If I were slow, I would work more to increase my speed. If I didn’t move well or fluidly, I would take a dance class to improve. I look at shortcomings as a challenge that people overcome.

There is no guarantee that anyone who begins a sport will be Olympic champion, but until you give your all, you will never know. There are athletes everywhere who begin their career for the love of the sport with no guarantees. The love and hard work is what creates champions, not an Olympic Gold Medal. People become great at something because they choose to be great and work hard at achieving greatness.  So yes, I believe anyone can be amazing, at any sport.

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QUAZ EXPRESS WITH BILL MAY:

• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? What do you recall?: Nah … not really. For some reason, the second I sit in my seat, I fall asleep. I would be in Heaven, or the Willy Wonka Chocolate Factory before I realized we crashed

• Who wins in a hold-your-breath-underwater battle between you and Michael Phelps? And how long can you last?: I already know I would win. Synchronized swimmers could rock any swimmer. The longest I have held my breath was 3:30, but if it was a win or lose situation, I’m not coming up!

• Explain how Aquaman could possibly beat Superman in a fight?: Well, Superman is pretty incredible, so Aquaman would have to drag him to the bottom of the ocean and strap him down with Kryptonite. Or he could challenge him to a synchronized swimming routine.

• Rank in order (favorite to least):  Donna Summer, Mark Spitz, High School Musical II, lava lamps, Darth Vader, Burt Reynolds, Pete Rose, elephants, Denzel Washington, Jim Boeheim, steak: Mark Spitz, Donna Summer, Jim Boeheim, Elephants, Lava Lamps, Darth Vader, Steak, Denzel Washington, Burt Reynolds, High School Musical II, Pete Rose.

• Dry, heat, gambling, middle of nowhere—Las Vegas seems like a brutally awful place to live. Tell me why I’m wrong (or right): Cirque Du Soleil’s “O.”  Duh….

• Celine Dion calls. She offers you $20 million next year to move onto her estate and teach her pet guinea pig to swim. The catch—You sleep in a dog house and eat everything out of a dog dish. You in?: Heck yes!!! I have done way worse for way less!

• Five favorite movies: Titanic, Lion King, Frozen, Breakfast Club, Legend. Oops… and No. 6 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory—Gene Wilder’s version.

• Your name is pretty boring. If you could change “Bill May” to anything, what would you take?: My “porn” name: Aaron Torchwood

• What happens when we die?: We go to Heaven/Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory

• One question you would ask James Garfield were he here right now?: Shouldn’t you be in Heaven/ Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory????

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life