|Kristina Lum Underwood and Bill May hope to compete at the debut of mixed duet at the FINA World Championships in July 2015.|
When Bill May jumps into the water Tuesday at the Soda Aquatic Center in Moraga, California, he‘ll create a splash he has waited his entire life for.
And this is a person who makes plenty of perfect splashes as a synchronized-swimming performer in Cirque du Soleil’s “O” show on the Las Vegas Strip. Ten years and running.
A two-time USA Synchronized Swimming Athlete of the Year, May finally will be able to pursue a world championship years after he gave up competitive synchro. This year, for the first time, FINA, the international governing authority for synchronized swimming and other aquatic sports, is introducing mixed duet to its world championship synchronized swimming program.
May will compete Tuesday in the USA Synchro world team trials with Christina Jones, a 2008 Olympian who performs with May in Cirque du Soleil, and Kristina Lum Underwood, a 2000 Olympian and four-time national duet champion who performs in “Le Reve - the Dream,” an aquatic and aerial show at Wynn Las Vegas. Note: 2004 Olympic gymnast Courtney Kupets also joined the cast of “Le Reve” in 2014.
The mixed duet trials themselves will make history.
“This is a very important and special time for all of us, including our coaches, who have supported us our entire career,“ May said. “I wasn’t sure that I would see mixed pair come as soon as it did and while I am still available to compete.”
If May wins at the U.S. trials, he and his partners will compete in the inaugural mixed duet at the world championships in July in Kazan, Russia.
“It’s going to be a great honor to finally show the world all the years of our hard work,“ May said.
Actually May was ready for this years ago.
He was the first man in USA Synchro history to win a national title. He won 14 of them. He teamed up with Lum Underwood to win a silver medal at the 1998 Goodwill Games.
At the U.S. trials, May will swim with Jones in the technical program and with Lum Underwood in the free routine.
“Christina (Jones) and I match physically, very well in a way that complements as a routine where everything must be done completely the same,” he said. “In that case it’s a huge advantage to match so well.”
And then May and Lum Underwood will perform in the free.
“We will be doing so many exciting lifts, throws and connections that are not allowed in a technical routine,” May said.
These are not the words of a swimmer who is going to enter the trials or the world championships in a conservative way. Those who know him would expect nothing else.
“Bill is an extraordinary athlete and performer,” Lum Underwood said. “He is always pushing the envelope in artistry and strives to be the best he can be.”
That goes all the way back to 1999, when May was banned from the Pan American Games due to his gender and from the Athens 2004 Olympic Games for the same reason. Chris Carver, who was May’s coach back then, told ABC News in a 2004 interview, “Let me tell you this: He not only would have made the (Olympic) team, he would have been among the very top of the competitors on the U.S. team.”
Fast forward to 2015, and May is not only ready to establish his own presence at the world championships but open the door for other men wanting to enter the international world of synchronized swimming.
“This is a huge step for men in synchronized swimming, as well as the sport in general,” May said. “I believe this new event, the mixed duet, will truly elevate this sport and help the sport continue to grow.”
“Allowing men to compete is such an incredible moment in the history of synchronized swimming,” Lum Underwood said, “and I am extremely happy for Bill that he will get to be a part of this. He has given so much to this sport. It was an honor to have been his partner for the many years before while trying to pursue this new direction.
“It means a great deal to have been asked to swim with him once again as we finally get to see this dream come to reality.”
May recently celebrated his 10-year anniversary with Cirque du Soleil’s “O” show, which includes synchronized swimming and Olympic swimmers as a part of the performance. He performs with Jones, but has never competed with her.
When they are not performing one of their 10 weekly shows or rehearsing for Cirque du Soleil, they are training for the world championship trials. It is a situation that May says Cirque du Soleil supports.
“I really enjoy working with him,” Jones said. “He has such a positive attitude and his talent is limitless. On top of that, he is the hardest worker I know. I have never competed with a man before and it’s a nice, new, refreshing change.”
May is appreciative of Jones and Lum Underwood joining him in their historic endeavor.
“Both of these girls are retired synchronized swimmers and Olympians who are returning to competition to swim by my side on this incredible journey of representing the United States as the first mixed duet at the FINA World Championships,” May said. “I am a pretty lucky guy.”
Carver, head coach and program director at the Santa Clara Aquamaids, and several other coaches are among those working with May, Jones and Lum Underwood. It has formed a strong support system for a guy who wanted to pursue a world championship nearly 20 years ago.
“I owe to a family that unconditionally supported me, as well as coaches that would not let me being a male stop me from trying to be the best synchronized swimmer and athlete I could be — a journey that apparently continues,” May said.
Paul D. Bowker has been writing about Olympic sports since 1990 and was Olympic assistant bureau chief for Morris Communications at the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games. He also writes about Olympic sports for the Springfield (Mass.) Republican. Bowker has written for TeamUSA.org since 2010 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.