It’s the first round of the solo competition at the National Synchronized Swimming Championships in Tucson in April, and the crowd at the University of Arizona pool is ready for a show. As the spectators take their seats, the locker room and the perimeter of the pool are crawling with swimmers dressed in coordinated, eye-pleasing patterns, painting on waterproof makeup and shellacking their hair back with Knox Unflavored Gelatine.

But the next competitor is nowhere in sight.

“Is the dude up now?” someone asks.

He is, but no one can find him.

“Kenyon is missing,” a female official tells his coach, Chris Carver. “They think he’s in the locker room, but I can’t go see.”

“Go anyway!” Carver yells.

Right then, Kenyon Smith strolls out of the locker room. It’s immediately obvious why the 18-year-old has been hiding: He’s wearing green briefs and a mesh top adorned with matching glittery green vines that snake around his chest. The outfit looks like a leotard.

“He’s got a one-piece on,” one of the watching girls says.

Smith ignores her and walks to the edge of the pool. When the music starts, he sits down with his legs spread and toes pointed, then pushes his body into a handstand and flips gracefully into the water.

“Okay, that was amazing,” the girl says, surprised. “Makes up for his one-piece.”

For most of his four-minute freestyle routine, Smith is underwater and upside-down. His favorite move is the “barracuda,” in which he thrusts his body out of the pool—feet first, without pushing off the bottom—so that his chest is almost entirely above the water. Sometimes he does splits. When his head is out of the water, his expression changes according to the music. One moment he’s smiling, the next he’s somber.

Smith finishes his routine and climbs out of the pool. Before his score (93.67 out of 100) is announced, he strips off the outfit his coach—a woman in her sixties who’s a three-time trainer of the U.S. Olympic synchronized swimming (or synchro, as the people here call it) team—made him wear. Turns out he has a Speedo on underneath.

“I don’t really like the one-piece bodysuit,” he says later, “but if it adds to the whole thing, then I’ll do it. I already do synchronized swimming. I might as well go all the way.”

Male synchronized swimmers attract attention not just because they’re men dressed in the aquatic version of figure-skating costumes but because their sexuality is constantly in question. Of course, some are gay, like the eight guys who make up Tsunami Tsynchro, a team in San Francisco. These men, whose day jobs range from architect to aerospace engineer, say they’re not bothered by the perception. “We’re willing to let people think what they want about the sexual-orientation part of it,” says Dan Stevens, a 42-year-old public-relations-firm owner and Tsunami Tsynchro member, “but it’s fighting words when people say men don’t belong in the sport.”