Smith, who is the only male competing today and the only one on his team, the Aquamaids, from Santa Clara, California, takes the stereotyping a little harder. In middle school he was mocked so much for being a synchronized swimmer that he wanted to quit. “A lot of people thought I was gay,” he says.
He isn’talthough he’s never dated a teammate, he admits to liking some of them. And some of them have liked him too. “I’ve had to break some hearts, unfortunately,” he says. (Some of the girls asked his sister and fellow Aquamaid Layla for help getting Smith to go out with them. “I stay out of all that drama,” she says.) He’s come up with a retort for guys who think the fact that he can do an elegant underwater pirouette makes him gay. “I’m the one who gets to hang out with a group of girls in bikinis every day,” he says.
In fact, Smith spends most of his time with women. He practices with his team from six to noon every day, then attends class as a freshman at De Anza Community College in San Jose, California, where Layla, 21, also goes. At night he and Layla go home to their mom and two younger sisters, who are 9 and 12, in Santa Clara. He teaches an introductory synchro class once a week; the group has two boys. “It’s hard,” Smith says. “One of them wanted to quit because he was being made fun of.”
Out of the bodysuit, Smith doesn’t resemble the dorky male synchronized swimmers parodied by Harry Shearer and Martin Short on Saturday Night Live. His hair is bleached, he wears seventies-style white sunglasses, and he has a tongue ring he plays with when he’s nervous. On dry land he may look like any other carefree 18-year-old, but Smith’s path to the pinnacle of his chosen sport has involved a lot of sacrifice. Since he was 8, Smith has trained as hard as any high-level athlete. He started synchronized swimming the same summer that Layla tried it. “I always followed Layla with whatever she did,” he says. When he was 13, the two of them moved from Boulder, Colorado, to Santa Clara after Coach Carver asked them to train with the Aquamaidsthe most decorated team in synchro. Two older swimmers looked after them and their parents visited regularly, until their mother moved, a year later, to be with them full-time.
But despite finishing second in the solo competition at the 2007 national championships, and unlike the girls with whom he spends six hours wearing nose clips every day, Smith isn’t eligible for a synchro scholarship. And no matter how far he manages to rocket out of the water or how expressive he is during the chlorine-soaked ballets, unless the rules change he’ll never represent his country at the Olympics. The highest levels of the sport are closed to guys.