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No Olympic Glory for Male Synchronized Swimmers

by Kilian Melloy
Wednesday Jul 30, 2008

In the sports world, hard training and dedication aren't always enough: perception counts for a lot, and anti-gay prejudice is still a deeply rooted part of the culture.

Hence the dilemma faced by male synchronized swimmers: they are stereotyped as gay, and worse still, they aren't allowed to compete in the Olympics.

The sport of synchronized swimming is, like dance, about graceful movement and beauty in action as much as it is about strength, power, and dynamism. It takes a strong man, or woman, to compete in the sport, and only those in top condition excel.

But it's seen as a woman's sport--not just in the culture at large, but by the Olympics, too, and men are not allowed to be part of the Olympic-level competition.

The Web site for Details magazine, recently posted an article about the girls-only sport, and the men who are doing their best to break the gender barrier.

Those men (and there are few of them) don't only have to deal with the preconceived notions of those who don't quite understand; they also face what looks like intractable resistance from those who make the rules. The article quoted Olympic official Ginny Jasontek, who also serves as the president of United States Synchronized Swimming.

Said Jasontek, "We cannot allow men in a women's sport."

Added the Olympic official, "Men don't compete against women in gymnastics."

The article pointed out that so few men are involved in the sport that there are not sufficient male athletes to create a men's category in synchronized swimming.

But part of that shortfall comes from the perception that to be a synchronized swimmer is somehow only properly an ambition for female athletes; and that perception is part of the stereotype that casts male synchronized swimmers as gay.

To 18-year-old swimmer Kenyon Smith, the joke is on those who invest in such simplistic notions of which sports fall into male and female arenas.

The Details article quoted Smith as saying, "I'm the one who gets to hang out with a group of girls in bikinis every day."

The Details story acknowledged that there are indeed gay male synchronized swimming teams, such as San Francisco's Tsunami Tsynchro, but even members of that swimming troupe see the sport's gender barrier as something that ought to be brought down.

The article quoted one Tsunami Tsynchro swimmer, Dan Stevens, as saying, "We're willing to let people think what they want about the sexual-orientation part of it, but it's fighting words when people say men don't belong in the sport."

Those are confident words, but they come from an adult. For a kid in school, it can be harder to swim against the tide of perception and prejudice.

Said Smith, who endured harassment in middle school for participating in the sport, "A lot of people thought I was gay." It was enough, the article said, to make him want to quit.

But he persisted, and now Smith is the lone male member of the Aquamaids, a synchronized swimming team from Santa Clara, CA. Being a pro doesn't just mean allowing misplaced anti-gay teasing to roll off his back; it also means drawing a firm line when it comes to dating his female teammates.
Said Smith, "I've had to break some hearts, unfortunately."

That's a mark of the kind of discipline that Smith has exercised for a decade, since age 8, when he began the sport in the wake of his sister Layla. Both siblings were so talented at the sport that their coach suggested they join up with the Aquamaids, one of the sport's foremost teams. It was to pursue the sport that they moved from Boulder, CO.

Smith isn't just swimming as part of a team. He's also taking the lead in the sport as an instructor, and his example has given other male swimmers reason to brave the jeers and the shut door that bars them from Olympic competition. The Details article said that Smith has two male pupils in his introductory class to synchronized swimming; but old prejudices are hard to shake, and already one of the two boys has given thought to quitting due to the harassment to which he is subjected.

Smith sympathized, saying, "It's hard."

But Smith, too, has had brave male athletes to look to as role models; before Smith joined the Aquamaids, another man had already been part of the team, the Details piece reported. Bill May, now 29, was the first man on the team; now he's the only man on another team, that of Cirque du Soleil's water-based show, O, in which May portrays the sea-god Triton.

If a man competing in synchronized swimming seems a rarity now days, back in the 1990s it was a akin to something inappropriate: the Details article recounted how May had been booed at one match, by the father of another (female) athlete.

Said May in the article, "There was silence for a while, and then the competition just kept going."

May recounted how a coach advised him to take up another sport, because staying with synchronized swimming was guaranteeing that May would never reach the Olympics.

Said May, "That made me mad."

May went on, "I thought, 'I'm going to go as far as I can and change the sport.'"

Though May has found an alternative in the performance of O (for which he is paid only $100 per show), the rules of the sport itself remain unchanged, which relegates careers in synchronized swimming by promising male athletes to the dry dock.

With no immediate chances for glory on the world stage, it must be the love of the sport that keeps men in the water. For Smith's sister Layla, the Olympic dream is especially freighted: "I want to try out for the team event for the next Olympic Games," the Details item quoted Layla, but "going without him would be heartbreaking."

Added Layla, "I'd feel really awful, because I've seen him work so hard all of these years."

Smith keeps working toward that impossible goal, however, reaching the penultimate cut at the 2006 Olympic trials before being counted out because of his gender.

Smith is a good sport about it, and still supportive of those female athletes allowed to give it their best in a quest for the gold, but, he said in the article, "It will be in the back of my head that I could have made that team."

Added Smith, "If I could have gone, I would have been on the team."

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


  • , 2010-03-01 11:04:27

    *looks at picture* I fully support people of all walks of life having the freedom to express their sexuality but I think a group of men in that same position would be slightly inappropriate for the Olympics. .

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