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.“
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’t—although 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 Aquamaids—the 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.
“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.“
Back at the pool in Tucson, Smith’s in his bodysuit again. It’s the final round of the solo competition, and he’s in third place. He’s behind two other competitors, one of whom is Sara Lowe, a 24-year-old former Aquamaid and Olympic-team member who swims for Stanford University. She’s competing with a severely sprained ankle that her team doctor called a “season-ending injury.“
Smith gets in the water, but during his routine he can’t seem to get his legs completely flat against the surface when doing upside-down splits. He’s been working on the skill by stretching for at least an hour every day, sometimes propping his leg on a book to extend it farther. “It’s an on-and-off thing,“ he says. “On a good day I can do it.“
This is not a good day. After he exits the pool, he stands on the deck to wait for his score. He keeps his costume on this time. A smile is frozen on his face. The score—94.33—is not enough to overtake the girls.
Lowe is the winner, and she climbs onto the podium. Smith, having put on his red tracksuit and sunglasses, is too busy cramming sandwiches and cookies into his gym bag to clap as she’s awarded her gold medal. When his name is announced, he dutifully kisses her (and the second-place winner) before stepping onto the lowest tier of the stand. Afterward Lowe admits she’s glad she wasn’t beaten by Smith. “I’m a very competitive person,“ she says. “I don’t like losing to anyone, but it would be more difficult for me to lose to a guy.“
Smith is philosophical about it. Being the only guy in synchro has that effect. You just have to get on with it. He’s hopeful that the rules might change so that he can compete at the 2012 Olympics; beyond that, he can imagine himself performing in Las Vegas shows. “I’m not upset about it,“ he says. “I’m going to try to win next year.“