BUDAPEST, Hungary –The first time Kanako Kitao Spendlove saw Bill May, she never wanted to forget him.
“I was surprised because I had never seen a male synchronized swimmer,” she said. “So that’s why I was so excited: ‘Oh, I have to take a picture together!’”
They even exchanged parts of their uniforms.
It was 1996 and Spendlove was on her first national team, competing for Japan at the American Open in Missouri. May was also on his first national team, representing the United States.
Now they’re in countless photos together as Team USA’s premier mixed duet. Actually, they are Team USA’s only elite mixed duet.
On Saturday, May, 38, and Spendlove, 35, won their second bronze medal at the 2017 FINA World Championships. They added the hardware in mixed duet free to go along with the bronze they won in mixed duet technical earlier in the week.
Aleksandr Maltsev and Mikhaela Kalancha of Russia scored 92.6000 for the gold, while Giorgio Minisini and Mariangela Perrupato took the silver with 91.1000 points, followed by May and Spendlove with 88.7667. The placements did not change from the preliminaries on Friday.
May and Spendlove scored 26.7000 for execution, 35.8667 for artistic impression and 26.2000 for difficulty for their “Medusa” routine. Spendlove plays the monster with snakes for hair -- she made the headpiece herself, which looks like coiled green snakes – while May is Perseus, who stalks her and eventually kills her.
It’s quite violent, and that’s on purpose.
“With the mixed duet, we really want to portray a story,” May said. “We want to show that there’s definite differences between a man and a woman. And this is such a great theme because there truly is the role of a man and the role of a woman with Perseus and Medusa.”
“And the woman is strong,” added their coach, Chris Carver.
May said that in addition to showing the strength of a female in synchronized swimming, they also wanted to display “the strength and beauty of a man in synchronized swimming.”
May has never left a worlds competition empty-handed after coming out of retirement when mixed duet was added for the 2015 worlds in Kazan, Russia. He became the first man to win a world synchro gold when he paired with Christina Jones for the gold in the technical routine then added the silver with Kristina Lum Underwood in mixed duet free.
With both of his partners retiring and Spendlove now a U.S. citizen, May said, “It was just like a match made in heaven.”
Or in Vegas.
Spendlove and May were both working at Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas in the popular “O,” show. May has been with the show 12 years, Spendlove for 11.
She won a gold and three silver medals with for Japan at the 2003 and 2005 world championships, and a silver medal at the Olympic Games Athens 2004 in the team event before retiring and moving to the United States.
When Spendlove won gold medal in the solo event at the world masters, May knew she still wanted to do more than shows and from working with her, he knew they would flow well together.
“She still has that passion and that fight and that love of synchronized swimming in competition,” he said.
He knew the feeling, having retired after not being allowed to compete in the Pan American Games or Olympic Games. May came out of his decade-long retirement for mixed duet, and doesn’t have any plans to quit.
“I’ll probably be here for the rest of my life,” May said. “I think we’ll be there (in 2019). We’ll be stronger, faster, wiser.”
He feels a responsibility to continue to promote the mixed duet event, which he hopes will eventually be added to the Olympic program.
“We came back to competition,” May said of himself and Spendlove. “We have our lives now, but our goal is to really push for the mixed duet. We want people to enjoy seeing mixed duet and not compare it to a same gender duet. We want it to really be a separate event.”
He believes mixed duet should be judged differently from same gender duet.
“We love that the mixed duet is progressing,” May said. “That’s our driving force. The best thing we can do is forget about our age.
“We’ll do as best as we can and keep trying to improve our skill in the sport.”
He cited support from Carver and from their club, the Santa Clara Aquamaids, in getting to Budapest, where they had an enthusiastic Team USA cheering section at City Park – Heroes Square, one of the most picturesque venues the sport has had.
“To have all that support around us,” May said, “it’s such a great feeling to come here and be proud of what we did and look towards the future of mixed duet.”
They also have the backing of Cirque du Soleil, which gave them two weeks off.
“Being a night job, we can train during the day and then perform at night,” May said. “We can get used to swimming in front of large crowds of people because we do it in front of 4,000 people every night.”
But as synchronized swimming ended its run at worlds, the sport was rocked earlier Saturday when the FINA congress, aquatics’ governing body, officially changed its name to artistic swimming.
“I think people have really become accustomed and more accepting of synchronized swimming,” May said, “so I think to change the name is going to be very difficult.”
He said small clubs will have to change their branding. “It’s a lot of money and I think it’s going to actually take away from the sport,” he said. “To change the name I think it will take us a step back.
“Synchronized swimming is very artistic, but it’s also becoming even more and more very athletic. With every competition you see people doing throws and jumps and everything is more powerful.”
May and Spendlove still have that photo they took back in 1996, while May also has a picture of them from the Rome Open two years later. “We’re these little babies and now we have babies of our own,” he said. “I have dogs and she has a child.”
One day Spendlove’s 2-year-old boy could be a synchronized swimmer. That’s because his mom’s partner helped pave the way.