Lords of the Underwater Dance: Men in Synchronized Swimming

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Women, Sport, and Film - 2002
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Lords of the Underwater Dance: Men in Synchronized Swimming

Rebecca Rouse

In today's sports culture, the desegregation of traditionally male-dominated sports seems a natural move in the context of American society's growing dialogue on women's rights. However, one aspect of gender equality in sports which remains practically unaddressed is the issue of men's participation and acceptance in traditionally female-dominated sports. There exists a serious "cultural roadblock" (Arnold 1998) that effects men competing in sports which are traditionally associated with women and, in some cases, a legal roadblock as well. One of the most shocking examples of sex discrimination in a sporting event is faced by male synchronized swimmers. Men were until very recently not allowed to even participate in synchronized swimming events in the Olympics and other internationally recognized competitions such as those associated with the Federation Internationale de Natacion Amateur and the Pan American Games. Many opponents argue that, in a male-dominated society, issues such as the discrimination against male synchronized swimmers are simply irrelevant. However, it is important to remember that gender equality means equal rights and opportunities for both men and women.


Male synchronized swimmer in action

It is hard for many to even accept synchronized swimming as a sport. It has a 'frivolous' reputation, is included as parts of Hollywood musicals and Las Vegas shows and is viewed by many as pure entertainment rather than athleticism. Indeed, synchronized swimmers have problems being taken seriously on a variety of fronts. For example, "in 1996, the French Olympic team was banned from using a routine in which swimmers attempted to portray the suffering of the Jews during the Holocaust" (Arnold 1998). The issue becomes even more complicated when the idea of men involved in synchronized swimming is introduced. To many it is a feminine sport, reminiscent of the underwater dancing of Esther Williams and of smiling young women in coordinating bathing suits. Men appear in synchronized swimming only as a joke, such as in the popular Saturday Night Live sketch from 1984 which features actors Martin Short and Harry Shearer in lifejackets, bathing caps, and nose plugs performing an obviously ridiculous routine. "Men have never done synchronized swimming in a sanctioned competition in this country. Officially, it's got like a zero acceptance rate... Men's synchro isn't even in the '88 Olympics yet," acknowledges one character. "That's okay, because we could use the time," he then spoofs. "'Cause I'm not... I'm not that strong a swimmer" (Guest et al, 1984). This is the only exposure that many Americans have had to the idea of men participating in synchronized swimming, and it is introduced as a piece of comedy. It is a piece of comedy that comes back to haunt those male athletes who would seek to make men's synchronized swimming a mainstream and socially accepted event.


Harry Shearer and Martin Short as synchronized swimmers in a 1984 Saturday Night Live sketch


For Bill May, synchronized swimming is no joke: "He's heard it all, from comments about Martin Short's synchronized swimming skit on Saturday Night Live to the more positive spin about getting to hang out with all those girls" (Arnold 1998). A California resident in his early 20s, May is a member of the Santa Clara Aquamaids, an accomplished and well known synchronized swimming club. He is also the club's only male member. Although he has won synchronized swimming's Grand Slam at the 2000 Jantzen Nations, finished first in duet at the Swiss Open and French Open last year, and was named the U.S. Synchronized Swimming Athlete of the Year in 1998 and 1999 (Ziemer 2000) he was still barred from many international competitions until September of 2000. "'I basically see myself as any person who wanted to try synchronized swimming,' [May told ABC news]. 'When I first joined, I thought, 'This is a great sport and it's fun.' He did not have visions, he says, of becoming a pioneer, of making a statement, of going where few men have ever gone. But he hopes other men follow his lead" (Ziemer 2000). Indeed, as May looks forward to competing in the 2004 Olympics as part of a coed duet with partner Kristina Lum, many more men are taking steps to finally become involved with synchronized swimming. Men's synchronized swimming is even starting to gain respect and recognition outside of the United States. May and Lum were invited in 1998 to visit China and "demonstrate the idea of a mixed synchronized swimming pair in [that] country" (Arnold 1998), leading many to believe that the sport is beginning to develop rapidly in many areas of the world. However, even as legal restrictions on male synchronized swimmers are being lifted, cultural prejudices remain.


Bill May with fellow Aquamaid Kristina Lum


At the very least, men synchronized swimmers are something that mainstream America is not used to seeing, if not something that people consider inappropriate. Bill May's synchronized swimming club, the Aquamaids, and other synchronized swimming groups have received many promotional opportunities, such as appearing in an Aerosmith video and in advertisements for Mervyns and Comedy Central. However, May himself was not given the opportunity to appear in these ads and was specifically not invited to participate in the Aerosmith shoot (Arnold 1998). Male synchronized swimming is often associated with homosexuality, with no actual grounds for that association. The most obvious example of this stereotype is the film "Waterboys," a Japanese production which was released by Miramax in the United States last year. The piece is often labeled part of the gay and lesbian film genre and tells the story of an all-male high school synchronized swimming team. Directed by Yaguchi Shinobu, the film is a comedy which is described in almost all its reviews as homoerotic. "No one will be surprised to hear that, in a film in which boys walk round as much as possible in small tight swimming trunks, there is a wealth of gay allusions between the lines," states the web site of the International Film Festival at Rotterdam. These stereotype further hinder the acceptance of male synchronized swimming in an already homophobic popular culture, and inhibit such athletes as Don Squire, coach of the Cyprus Club in Carmel Valley, and his partner Del Neel: "Squire calls the competitive synchro world 'very political' and 'very sexist'; he claims that he and his partner... have been snubbed over and over because 'two gay men coaching in a women's sport is just not that politically popular with U.S. Synchro'" (Arnold 1998).


A scene from 'Waterboys,' a 2001 film directed by Yaguchi Shinobu

Too often issues of sexism against men get ignored in American popular culture, especially in American sports culture. The issue of men's participation in synchronized swimming is a good example of the struggles that men are currently going through in order to ensure that gender equality in the sports world applies to everyone.


Bibliography

Arnold, Gina. "Synch Different," Metro Publishing Inc., http://www.metroactive.com/papers/metro/09.10.98/cover/synchroswim-9836.html, September 10, 1998.

Guest, Christopher, et al. "Synchronized Swimmers," http://snltranscripts.jt.org/scripts/84aswimmers.phtml, originally broadcast October 6, 1984.

"Waterboys (Review)," International Film Festival of Rotterdam, http://www.filmfestivalrotterdam.com/2002/en/film/10522.html, 2001.

Ziemer, Tracy. "Out of Sync: Male Synchronized Swimmer Barred from the Olympics," http://abcnews.go.com/sections/sports/DailyNews/billmay_000901.html, 2000.

 

 

Continuing conversation
(to contribute your own observations/thoughts, post a comment below)

11/12/2005, from a Reader on the Web

Hi, I am a synchronized swimmer, and i have just read the column on male synchronized swimmers and sexism. I found this column to have been based on mostly opinion and assumptions. I don't believe that males should be able to compete in our sport, not because of sexism, but because of the way that their bodies are built. No matter what a young teen girl does, she could never build upper arm strength like a young male. I have competed against the Aquamaids. When they swim with Kenyon, he can do things that we females cannot. He could throw a girl ten feet out of the water by hisself. He can do a thrust and make it all the way out to his chest. And for this the judges give him higher scores. Men can't compete in the Olympics because of their bodies, not because of sexism. And as you said, most people don't even view synchronized swimming as a sport, but then you say that men are having a hard time being viewed equally in this sport. Why should men be understood in this sport, but not women. I know you have your opinions, but try being in a women's place in the world of synchronized swimming. It's not easy. We work year round, and do what I view as harder than most other sports, but people don't know that. All that they see is the result of our work, where we make it look easy. And now we should spend time working on the audience's perspective on male synchronized swimming? Girls don't play in the NFL, guys don't do synchronized swimming in the olympics. - Synchronized Swimmer

Additional comments made prior to 2007
The sport will most definitely feature more men in the future. The obvious beginnings will be with opposite sex synchro partners as in ice dancing, ballroom dancing. These duos should become more common as time passes. As for same-sex pairings...this is probably relegated to the Gay Games and other sporting venues for the time being ... Reader on the web, 18 November 2006

 

 

It is an interesting topic talking about men in synchro swimming. I agree with the thought saying that men is too strong than women. so, why dont FINA make it different: synchro swim for men and synchro swim for women. it is fairer.......Btw. I am a coach in a synchro club in Surabaya, Indonesia. and now I need a coach of better level for my club. Anyone of you would like to coach in my club? could be for one year? she/he should be an ex coach / ex athlete. real athlete of synchro swimming ... Lily, 12 March 2007

 

 

Hello, My name is Jennifer Clarke (I'm writing from my mothers computer) I am doing a report on Syncronized Swimming for school gym class (and because I'm quite interested in it, because I think it's beautifully done) I can't find anything in the books at the library, or anywhere else. I would like to know if you would want to send me anything or offer me any information I can use on my report to make it more interesting. I want to learn everything I can about it I am very interested in this type of swimming, and now I have a chance to learn all about it. I'm hoping you can help me ... Jennifer Clarke, 17 May 2007

 

 

After reading the comment about men not competing in synchro, I would have to disagree with her comment. This is a sport about strength, flexability, beauty and poise but most of all art. Every athlete, boy or girl have the will to swim to their best. I remember when girls always beat my times when I was a speed swimmer and I was much older then them. It happens! Do not discriminate based on sex and strength, but support your fellow athletes in a sport they themselves love to be a part of. Remember, girls have beaten athletes like Bill May in the past. Push yourself to your limits everyday, and you will succeed ... John Ortiz, 15 July 2007

Comments

Jake's picture

Swimming

Synchronized swimming needs an extensive swimming workouts before it can performed. I tried it once and I had a quite hard time memorizing each steps under the water. It really requires a great swimming abilities.

Serendip Visitor's picture

should be most popular sports in America

The article is very true that equality means same rules for men and women. But the problem is that in today's scenario this applies only in the cases of women means they have right to claim their rights on the argument of equality. Swimming is such a beautiful sport and I think just because if this kind of lack of modern thinking this sport stands at 14th rank as most popular sports in America. And if this revolution will possibly change the rank and might be improve the ranking of this American sport.

Serendip Visitor's picture

I am a femal synchronized

I am a femal synchronized swimmer, and I don't think it's fair that men can not compete in the olympics! I think that men should be allowed to compete in their own catagory, just like every other sport. I am also doing a report on synchronized swimming, and I would love to get more opinions. If anyone would like to comment on mine, please add your sex. Thanks so much!

Jack's picture

Male synchronized swimming...

Well, I guess if you believe in gender equality, then just as girls/women should have every opportunity as boys/men, so too should boys/men have every opportunity as girls/women. And in some combat sports (wrestling, BJJ, Jiu Jitsu, MMA), where boys/men have weight classes and girls/women do not, girls/women are often allowed to compete against boys/men, even though in most of these cases, fighting a girl/woman may present both social and ethical dilemmas for boys/men. My point: men should be able to compete in synchronized swimming in their own divisions- however if those are not available, men should be allow to compete in the women's divisions. Men may have a strength advantage (though I'd argue it's negligible in water), but women typically have a flexability advantage: and it would seem to me that both could have value in synchronized swimming. And I'm male.

Anonymous's picture

I am also a synchronized

I am also a synchronized swimmer, and while I agree that there is a valid point in that men might be stronger in areas women aren't, I also think men should be able to compete in the Olympics with synchro. Male and female dancers work just fine together. Also, except for being barred from the Olympics (which I disagree with), there isn't any other discrimination against men swimming synchro. Everyone I know of respects Bill May and Kenyon Smith's ability to swim. And synchro these days is having enough problems recruiting girls to swim and keeping them involved with the sport- with all the ridiculous views of synchro and homophobia mentioned, it is a heck of a lot harder to even interest any guys with joining synchro. There is no chance of doing male-synchro, female-synchro because there isn't enough interest. And as for the comparison to doing 'duos' or partnerships like in dancing...that's not how synchro works. Confining men to the duet competition is a bizarre idea. In short, there isn't any sexist problem with synchro save for the 'men can't do the Olympics' thing. Which could change. Seriously. I hope, anyway.

Anonymous's picture

there's no reason the

there's no reason the stronger sex can't perform in synchronized seimming, if girls can do it i don't see why men cant! i think its mainly just a matter of grace and elegance, that the female body has, but other than that, I honestly dont see any reason why it aint possible!

Anonymous's picture

Comments in purple block....

*********Well... well...I don't know what Synchro sport club you are from - I was thought you have team bond.... to say: "Men can't compete in the Olympics because of their bodies, not because of sexism" is a little off, don't you think?
Men don't compete in Olympics because it is not allowed, not because of their bodies dear. A mix-sex pair duet competition could very well allow men to compete on Olympic level and if we could have more male synchro swimmers a men synchro team could be absolute delight to watch - and one of the reasons- difference of physical build. Do you think it is a bad idea? I don't! I do believe we are equal in rights, if men want to compete in Olympics in Synchronized Swimming devision it is their right to stand for it, ask for it and demand the answer!
Don't let it bother you personally - Bill or Kenyon, or any other male performer in Synchro doesn't have to suffer.
WE HAVE THE POWER TO CHANGE IT! SO LETS DO IT - WHO IS UP THERE IN US SYNCHRO TO MAKE A CHANGE?
PLEASE DO IT NOW, YOU WILL BE REMEMBERED FOR YOUR GOOD WILL.

I watched few synchro performances and it was marvelous, just like a magic... if you say men has more strengths...would that be a fantastic show!!!!!!

Sydney Sans's picture

I too am a synchronized

I too am a synchronized swimmer and i have a mixed opinion. It is a proven fact that men are stronger, but at the same time I strongly dissagree with making synchronized swimming for only men. Our homophobic country would be the last to accept it, and anyways who says these men are gay? I don't know about Bill, however I know personally that Kenyon is far from gay. Although I know and love him, I still think it's weird to see him swim. At the same time though, I wish there were more boys to swim with. I feel that synchronized swimming should be treated with the same respect as figure skating, and just as men are figure skaters who have beautiful duets and solos, men should be allowed to participate in the same fashion with regards to synchronized swimming. Besides, whomever was talking about how the judges score Kenyon higher, I have to say that he is an incredibly talented young man and when he is swimming in a team competition, I see Kenyon as the one being lifted and thrown. These girls shove it in your face that they do not use his strength for lifts. ....Sydney Sans February 2008

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