William Aaron may is a world-class athlete, a man perfectly engineered for his sport. He is broad through the shoulders and back, smooth-muscled, powerful, neither too short nor too tall. He is well-proportioned, machined to his sport's specifications: long and strong at the arms and legs for leverage, thick at the ribs for inhaling barrel-sized lung-fuls of air. William Aaron May at 20 is focused, determined and intense. He practices every day—six, eight, 10 hours at a time. Sacrifices himself, in ways large and small, for a dream. The first time I see William Aaron May, he is surrounded by hard-bodied young women in bathing suits, and he is crying.
Understand that Bill May knew this bad moment was coming. "It's something I've known ever since my first coach sat me down and told me, 'You can keep doing this if you want to, but there's not much of a future,' " he says. He has known for 10 years how this chapter of his story would end. Has pictured it and heard it again and again in his head, trying to prepare himself for it, harden himself to the inevitability of it. Still, when it happens, when that bad thing finally swaggers in from your own future, kicks you squarely in your tenderest parts and then sits down next to you, perhaps for the rest of your life, it hurts. Knowing that it's coming doesn't make it hurt any less.
The heavy air and the distortion and all that satin-finished concrete inside the Weyerhaeuser King County Aquatic Center in suburban Seattle make it difficult to understand the P.A. announcements. Thirteen names have been called. Thirteen world-class athletes have just been introduced as members of the 2000 U.S. Synchronized Swimming Olympic Training Squad. Bill May's name has not been announced. While he's a highly ranked member of the national team and might easily have made the Olympic squad, men are not allowed to compete in synchronized swimming at the Olympics.
The words and the names echo through the humidity and the high, nasal, chlorine stink, ricocheting from wall to wall, across the pool and up five stories to the ceiling and back down into the crowd. The audience applauds as the new Olympic team gathers at one end of the pool and dons, for the first time, its red, white and blue warmups. Each swimmer receives a folded American flag. Each flag, we are told, has been flown over the nation's Capitol. In an airplane, perhaps? There is some confusion on this point among spectators.
In the meantime, 30 feet from the podium, Bill May sits and watches the women he has trained with realize their dreams. He's happy for them, of course, and proud, but he knows that he can't go with them. He has known all along. For 13 young women and one young man, this is the defining moment in a young lifetime's worth of hard work. All the practice in the world won't make Bill May what he most needs to be right now: a woman. That's when he puts his head down, a hand to his face, and cries.
Synchronized swimming is a curious thing, a hybrid of sport and theater, Lloyd Bridges and Lloyd Webber. Overlooked when it's not misunderstood, it is always Esther Williams and sometimes Austin Powers. A direct descendant of Billy Rose's Aquacade of the 1930s, it began as water ballet, a kind of semisubmerged vaudeville dance line. As a Technicolor Williams lagoon-stroked her way through MGM films in the '40s, hundreds of amateur clubs splashed up around the country with names such as Sea Sirens, Sea Sprites, Corkettes, Aquamaids and Aquanuts. What began as a recreational imitation of Hollywood's elaborate choreography was formalized in the late 1940s as a competitive sport with compulsory figures, judges and a complex scoring system. It has been an Olympic event since 1984, the same year it became a national punchline in a sketch on Saturday Night Live. Tracie Ruiz and Candy Costie won Olympic gold for the U.S. in Los Angeles that summer; Harry Shearer and Martin Short foundered in the shallow end that fall, and America has been confused as hell about synchronized swimming ever since.
It may be the half-lamé suits and pageant-winner headgear or the pinchy little nose clips or the Timmy Tooth smiles or the waterproof RuPaul makeup, but synchronized swimming has had an awful time getting itself taken seriously. Maybe it's the gelatinized hair (gelatin hardens in the pool, melts in the shower—way less work than Vaseline) or the overwrought Vangelis elevator music that accompanies many of the routines, but it all adds up to a broad public perception that this isn't so much a real sport as it is a floor show, the opening number at the Fountainbleu circa 1959.
While the quirks and clichés of synchronized swimming are undeniable, it is also undeniably a sport, no more eccentric than figure skating or gymnastics. It places the same premium on endurance and precision; calls for an equal application of athleticism and esthetics to the art of making the near-impossible look easy; exacts the same kind of pain. It is as tough a thing, albeit an odd one, as a human can choose to do. Williams, Hollywood's Million Dollar Mermaid, puts it this way: "Imagine doing an entire gymnastics routine. Now imagine doing an entire gymnastics routine without breathing."
Every great syncher in America is in Seattle this second week in June: Anna Kozlova. May's roommate, the former Russian star now awaiting her citizenship so she can swim for the U.S.; Tammy Cleland-McGregor and Heather Pease, '96 gold medalists in Atlanta, out of retirement and trying for Sydney as a duet; Kristina Lum, one of the sport's most elegant solo performers and May's duet partner.
The lobby of the cavernous Weyerhaeuser natatorium is stuffed with commemorative merchandise: T-shirts and fridge magnets and posters, most of them punny—SYNCH AND SWIM, SYNCH 'EM IN SYDNEY, etc. Best-in-show goes to a bumper sticker that reads SYNCHRONIZED SWIMMING: WAITING TO INHALE.