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

By Amanda Davies and George Ramsay, CNN

(CNN) — For decades, Bill May has dreamed of competing at the Olympics. It’s not athletic ability which has prevented him from achieving that goal to date, but a far more fundamental issue: he’s a man.

Until recently, male artistic swimmers have been excluded from competing at the Olympics, though a rule change announced just over a year ago means that May, a 45-year-old veteran of the sport, can finally fulfill his lifelong ambition.

“There is nothing in the world that could ever be bad right now,” he tells CNN Sport, understandably elated after the USA’s qualification for this year’s Games in Paris. “Everything is beautiful, amazing, wonderful. We’re going to the Olympics.”

Few athletes will be more deserving of their place at this year’s Games, which get underway in July, than May, and few will have had such an onerous, circuitous path to get there.

Precisely 20 years ago, with men still banned from artistic swimming, May watched from the side of the pool as the US team won bronze in Athens.

He stepped away from the sport after that, joining the Cirque du Soleil in its water production, “O.” That was his life for the next 10 years, at least until his competitive career was handed a lifeline.

When male athletes were granted permission to compete at the world championships in 2015, May once again found himself switching lanes. He became the inaugural winner of the mixed duet technical event alongside Christina Jones that year, and is now, finally, set to compete at the pinnacle of his sport.

In December 2022, World Aquatics announced that up to two male artistic swimmers from the teams of eight would be able to compete at the Paris Olympics.

“This is something that 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.

“I feel like my life is a cliché. This sport has given me so much, and now – to have the absolute dream of going to the Olympic Games – this is something that no one in the world could ever pass up, even just to try.”

Artistic swimming, known as synchronized swimming before a name change in 2017, has a long and complicated history when it comes to male participation in the sport.

Popularized in the United States in the first half of the 20th century, men were an established part of artistic swimming’s formative years.

However, male competitors were later seen to be at odds with the sport due to certain physical characteristics: they were heavier, less flexible – finding leg extensions more difficult – and less buoyant than their female counterparts.

“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 added to the Olympics in 1984, only women were allowed to compete. It has remained that way for the past 40 years, but this year’s competition will mark a seismic moment in the sport’s history.

“This is something that comes from our heart, not that comes from a gender,” says May. “I can never rationalize why anyone would keep anyone out.

“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 after this year’s Games, has been described 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, when, after persuasion from his mom, he ended up joining his sister’s classes. He later moved to California, but despite winning a series of national titles, his career was restricted by the lack of opportunities for men at the highest level.

Today, May is in the pool between eight and 10 hours each day as he prepares for the Olympics, on top of cross-training, core exercises, flexibility and weight training. In his mind, artistic swimming is one of, if not the most physically demanding sport on the Olympic program.

“You have to move like a dancer,” he says. “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.

“There’s not one sport in the world where you cannot breathe while you do your entire event, along with everything else combined. I really do think that it’s one of the most difficult sports in the world.”

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 duet, 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 chances at this year’s Olympics, having secured a place at the Games via this month’s world championships.

“I think the opportunity to get a medal is really strong.”

Denied a spot at the Olympics for so long, May harbors no sense of bitterness or regret about male exclusion from artistic swimming events, only gratitude for being able to finish his competitive career on such a spectacular high.

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

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