Pam Lambert
July 14, 1997 12:00 PM

SHY AND SELF-EFFACING, BILL May doesn’t like to make waves. But when you’re a man in the women’s world of synchronized swimming—make that an Olympic-caliber contender in a sport whose regulations bar you from competing at the highest levels because of your sex—well, it’s hard not to cause a splash. “I don’t know if it’s good for me, but I think it’s good for the sport,” says May, 18, of the debate that has roiled since this spring when his sizzling performances won him a spot on the Olympic-bound U.S. National Team I—which he was immediately forced to relinquish. “The sport might get more attention this way.”

What notice synchronized swimming does draw has made it the Rodney Dangerfield of jockdom. “People laugh at the sport because they don’t know what it takes to do it,” says May, whose teammates on the Santa Clara Aquamaids—yes, that’s correct—typically train 8 hours a day. “Your legs are burning, you’re about to explode, and you’re turning blue because you have no air. One of the hardest parts of synchronized swimming,” he says of the sport’s mélange of ballet, speed swimming, gymnastics and showbiz razzle-dazzle, “is trying to make it look easy.”

Few do it better than May, with his unique blend of power and precision. “It was an awesome performance,” observes swimming judge Donn Squire of May’s showing at the U.S. national championships in April. “I think Bill’s going to have a tremendous impact.” No less a figure than Esther Williams agrees. “It’s so obvious that men should be a part of synchronized swimming,” says the 1940s aquatic luminary. “Bill May just might someday be our first male Olympic champion.”

It wasn’t a dream of Olympic gold that first got May into sync, he says. As a 9-year-old in upstate Cicero, N.Y., he once had an hour to kill between the end of Ms speed-swimming class at a local park and the finish of his younger sister Courtney’s “synchro” session. “It seemed like a girl’s sport,” says May. “But it was hot out there. So I swam.”

Soon he was hooked. “Bill has done his own thing since the day he was born,” says mom Sharon, a kindergarten teacher, of her middle child. Around the house, she and her husband, Bob, a typesetter, got used to hearing “Billy crying out in pain trying to get those synchro splits down,” she says. “He would use phone books to stretch and just take them further and further.”

May went as far as he could with the Synchro Cats team in nearby Syracuse, kicking up relatively little controversy (although one father did boo him at a meet after May beat his daughter). In search of more experienced coaching, he left his family at 16 and moved to Santa Clara, Calif., to join the top-ranked Aquamaids. (Unlike World Cup, Olympic and NCAA regulations, U.S. Synchronized Swimming Inc.’s rules do not ban males.) “When Bill first came I was a little apprehensive,” says friend Lauren McFall, 17. “But he’s the hardest worker we have. If somebody’s down, they’ll talk to Bill. He’s like a little cheerleader.”

When May’s own spirits need a boost, he’ll phone home on the family’s 800 number. Or watch a video with Kristina Lum or Carrie Barton, the two teammates with whom he shares an apartment. Or maybe whip up one of his specialties, like white chocolate truffles. “I cook for my team a lot,” says May, whose training schedule and schoolwork—he just graduated from Santa Clara High School—leave little time for socializing.

This fall, May expects to attend West Valley College in Saratoga, Calif., which will enable him to continue to compete with the team. As for his longer-term plans, however, he’s treading water. The Sydney Olympics are still three years away, and instead of mounting a legal challenge, May and his coach, Stephane Miermont, are hoping the best way to make his case will be with great performances. This week at the prestigious Swiss Open, May is scheduled to represent the U.S. in both solo and duet competitions. Says swimming official Squire: “I think Bill is going to send a message around the world.”

But whether or not he gets his Olympic shot, many believe he’s already a champion. “A male in an all-female sport—a lot of people would be ashamed. But not Bill,” says his roommate Kristina. “He has a goal, he loves what he’s doing, and he does it. How can you not respect that?”


CHAMP CLARK in Santa Clara

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