“I want to try out for the team event for the next Olympic Games,” says Layla, who is his duet partner, “and going without him would be heartbreaking. I’d feel really awful, because I’ve seen him work so hard all of these years.”

The body that governs Olympic water sports maintains that it’s unfair for men to compete against women—even though men can go head-to-head with women in U.S. meets. “We cannot allow men in a women’s sport,” says Ginny Jasontek, the president of United States Synchronized Swimming and an Olympic official. “Men don’t compete against women in gymnastics.” And there simply aren’t enough male synchronized swimmers in the world for there to be an event for them.

Despite the rules, Smith tried out for the group going to Beijing. At the Olympic trials in December 2006, he had made it through the second-to-last cut when his coach was told he was disqualified. Smith says he’ll still cheer for the eight girls in high-cut sparkly suits and bejeweled ponytail holders who will represent the United States. “It will be in the back of my head that I could have made that team,” he says. “If I could have gone, I would have been on the team.”

The girls who compete against Smith treat him more like a curio than an interloper (“It’s the boy!” one shrieked when he dived into the pool at the meet in Tucson. “He’s too skinny,” said one. “He has nice legs,” said another), but his predecessor didn’t have it as easy. Bill May, 29, is the only man performing in the water in the Las Vegas Cirque du Soleil show O and, in the mid-nineties, was the first male Aquamaid. When May was 14, the father of a girl he’d just beaten in a solo routine started booing. “There was silence for a while, and then the competition just kept going,” May says. Later, one of his coaches took him aside and told him he should switch sports; he was never going to get to the Olympics in this one. “That made me mad,” he says. “I thought, ‘I’m going to go as far as I can and change the sport.’”

He didn’t change it—although he won four national and eight international solo titles. When he retired from synchro in 2004, May moved to Vegas to perform in O—a futuristic spectacle of water and fire stunts that could have been conceived by the Wachowski brothers. At one point in the show, May, dressed as King Triton in a gold codpiece, flies out of the pool for 40 meters with the help of a harness before disappearing into the roof of the auditorium. He’s paid only $100 a performance, but he’s happy that he’s not being singled out anymore. He’s not the only freak on the stage. “With this show, there are specialty acts everywhere,” he says. “There are circus performers, gymnasts, and clowns. Everyone’s unique, so no one’s unique.”