Excluded from the Olympics for his whole career, artistic swimmer Bill May set for ‘beautiful’ debut at this year’s Games

Excluded from the Olympics for his whole career, artistic swimmer Bill May set for ‘beautiful’ debut at this year’s Games - Arts and Culture - News

Title: Bill May’s Long-Awaited Olympic Dream: Breaking the Barrier in Artistic Swimming

For several decades, Bill May harbored a cherished dream of representing his country at the Olympic Games. However, it wasn’t a lack of athletic ability that had kept him from this aspiration until now. Rather, the issue was far more fundamental – he was a man.

Historically, male artistic swimmers have been excluded from competing at the Olympics. But fortunately for May, a rule change announced over a year ago has opened the door for him to finally realize his lifelong ambition.

“There is nothing in the world that could ever be bad right now,” May shared with CNN Sport, overflowing with excitement after the USA’s qualification for this year’s Olympics in Paris. “Everything is beautiful, amazing, wonderful. We’re going to the Olympics.”

May’s journey to this momentous occasion has been nothing short of arduous and circuitous. Exactly 20 years ago, with men still barred from artistic swimming, he watched from the poolside as the US team won a bronze medal at the Athens Olympics. He then left the sport, joining Cirque du Soleil’s water production, “O,” for the subsequent 10 years. That was until his competitive career was granted a second chance in 2015 when male athletes were finally allowed to compete at the world championships. May became the inaugural winner of the mixed duet technical event alongside Christina Jones and is now set to contest at the zenith of his sport.

In December 2022, World Aquatics announced that up to two male artistic swimmers from the teams of eight would be permitted at the Paris Olympics. “This is something I’ve dreamed of my whole life,” says May. “This is that one more thing to add to my list of dreams that continue to come true.”

Artistic swimming, formerly known as synchronized swimming until a name change in 2017, has an intricate and complex history regarding male participation. Popularized in the United States during the first half of the 20th century, men were a prominent part of artistic swimming’s formative years. However, their physical attributes – heavier build, less flexibility, and reduced buoyancy compared to women – eventually led to their exclusion from the sport.

“We are used to seeing a sport with a lot of grace, a lot of elegance, and there is also a big choreographic component,” Italian artistic swimmer Nicolò Ogliari told CNN Sport in 2021. “It’s a dance in the water. Maybe, we are more used to seeing a woman do these things. But like in classic dance, also in artistic swimming, there are men.”

When artistic swimming was first introduced at the Olympics in 1984, only women were permitted to compete. However, this year’s competition marks a pivotal moment in artistic swimming’s history as it welcomes male athletes for the first time in over four decades.

“This is something that comes from our heart, not that comes from a gender,” May expresses. “I can never rationalize why anyone would keep anyone out.” He further adds, “For one, it keeps the sport from growing. And two, it’s just not fair. It doesn’t represent humanity. It’s not the way that we want to represent sports in our culture.”

May, who will focus on his coaching career following this year’s Games, has been hailed as a “God” of the sport by fellow competitor Giorgio Minisini. The New York native has been involved in artistic swimming since the age of 10, inspired by his sister’s classes. Despite winning a series of national titles, his career was limited by the lack of opportunities for men at the highest level.

Today, May spends between eight and 10 hours each day in the pool, preparing for the Olympics, alongside cross-training, core exercises, flexibility workouts, and weight training. He believes that artistic swimming is one of, if not the most physically demanding sport in the Olympic program.

“You have to move like a dancer,” he explains. “You have to tumble and include acrobatics like a gymnast or an acrobat; you have to have the endurance of a marathon runner, and you have to do all of these things without breathing and without touching the bottom.”

A new event – an acrobatic routine – has been added to this year’s artistic swimming program, alongside technical and free routines. Athletes will compete as a team or a duo, with a total of six medals up for grabs.

“I feel that we’re going in with the greatest team in the world – the team that works the hardest, the team that has the most drive and determination,” May says about the USA’s prospects at this year’s Olympics, having qualified via the recent world championships. “I think the opportunity to get a medal is really strong.”

After being denied a spot at the Olympics for so long, May expresses no sense of bitterness or regret about male exclusion from artistic swimming events. Instead, he is filled with gratitude for the opportunity to bring a memorable conclusion to his competitive career.

“I know that this sport has given me a life beyond anything I could ever imagine,” he concludes.