NEW YORK (AP) — Bill May chuckles at the mere mention of the words “Saturday Night Live,” knowing that the conversation is about to turn to the TV show’s 1984 skit starring Martin Short as one of two brothers attempting to make it to the Olympics in what then was called synchronized swimming.
If you want to laugh, too, go ahead and Google the mockumentary-style 4 1/2 minutes, which include Short’s character earnestly looking into the camera and admitting, “I don’t swim,” and show him wearing an orange life vest in the pool. It’s satire, of course, and a sign of the long-ago times: They were poking fun at the mere idea of male participants in that then-women-only sport, which now is known as artistic swimming and changed the rules so men can compete at the Summer Games.
The first opportunity arrives in Paris this August, and May, a 45-year-old who lives in California, hopes to take advantage. He’ll find out on Friday whether he is one of the eight athletes (plus one alternate) picked by a five-person panel to be on the U.S. roster for the team event.
He has zero issues with what “SNL” did 40 years ago. Anything that draws attention to his life’s focus is fine by him. Indeed, May would love to meet Short at some point. Maybe even throw a couple of floaties on him and jump in the pool together.
“It’s hilarious. That lightheartedness is really what acknowledges a sport,” May said. “It may look silly, but it’s also saying, ‘OK, you know it does take time; you can’t just walk in and do any sport.’ So I think any publicity is great for our sport.”
May was part of the squad at the Aquatic World Championships in Doha, Qatar, in February, when the United States qualified for the Olympics in the team event for the first time since 2008. The expectation is that he would be the only man competing in Paris, if he is there; another top male athlete in artistic swimming, Giorgio Minisini of Italy, was ruled out of his country’s Olympic plans in April.
Both May and Adam Andrasko, the CEO of USA Artistic Swimming, see this as promoting inclusion in the sport by helping those who previously haven’t been encouraged — or even permitted — to take part.
“It’s a challenge for any one athlete to come into a sport that they’re not traditionally gender-specific in and, usually, in most American conversations, that’s a female entering a male sport,” Andrasko said. “We just have the reverse scenario here.”
One that May believes can send a broader message.
“You see these sports grow because, when they’re at the Olympics, that’s where heroes are made,” he said. “They’re going to see a male in the Olympics, and it’s going to inspire them, whether it be a male, female — anyone that has a dream to know that, ‘If I work hard enough, and if I dream big enough, then that can be me there someday.'”
The Phone CallMay remembers the place (his kitchen), the date (Dec. 17, 2022) and even the exact time (9:42 p.m.) that the phone call arrived with the news he was waiting for: Male artistic swimmers would be permitted at the 2024 Games.
How does he know the precise minute?
“When your greatest dream happens,” May said, “then you never forget.”
“I never thought it would happen for my career,” he said. “I knew it would happen, because I knew that it had to happen for the sport to grow. … I just kind of got chills all over my body and thought: ‘OK, am I going to do this? Yes, I’m going to do this!'”
He started in the sport in the late 1980s, when he was 10, after his sister tried it first. He felt welcome right away.
His path has included performing with Cirque du Soleil and coaching at Santa Clara Artistic Swimming.
“He was already a star when I started. Bill May had a huge name. I remember going to a few of his exhibitions. … I would watch him, and his swimming was so beautiful,” said Megumi Field, an 18-year-old who competes for the U.S. “It was inspiring to see someone like Bill go as far as he has.”
Growing Artistic SwimmingAndrasko, the CEO, would love to grow artistic swimming and recognizes that May could play a key role.
“We want to expand the sport. We want it to be more popular. We want more people to participate in it. And if you exclude half of the population, you’re not doing a very good job of that,” Andrasko said. “I don’t know if putting a male in this Games was a direct intention to drive popularity; obviously, it’s a strong storyline.”
If he does go to Paris, May might get a lot of attention, and everything else, that comes with being a “first” to do something. Andrasko said he pitched NBC on a “reboot” of Short’s decades-old skit.
“The minute that we qualified in Doha, Adam and I joked,” said Kennedy Shriver, the communications manager for USA Artistic Swimming. “He was like, ‘Your job is going to get a lot harder.’ And it did, but in a great way.”
May says he always wanted to do what he could to “complement the other athletes in the sport.” And just as importantly, he added, “set an example that anyone can do anything that they want to do.”