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In a first, male artistic swimmers will be able to compete in major global events

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The pool of athletes who can compete in artistic swimming has gotten bigger. The Olympics and the World Aquatics Championships will now allow men to participate. The sport was previously known as synchronized swimming and was open only to women. Bill May is an artistic swimmer, and he joins us now from the World Aquatic Championships underway in Japan. Mr. May, thanks for being with us.

BILL MAY: Hey, Scott. Thanks for having me here.

SIMON: What does this moment mean to you?

MAY: So this is an incredible moment, not only for myself, but also for the sport in general. In 2015, they actually added men into the mixed duet, which is a man and woman, and now they've added men into the Olympic events. So you'll see a lot of men at the Olympics next year, which is going to add a whole new dynamic to the sport.

SIMON: What's it been like for you to be an artistic swimmer who happens to be male?

MAY: Well, for me, I've been in the sport for 34 years, and I've seen it all. I've seen people that say there shouldn't be any men in the sport. I've been ridiculed. But now to have men in the Olympics, it's only proving that - what I said all along. You know, it's a sport that anyone can do. It's a sport that I love. It's a sport that I've devoted my life to. It's given me so many paybacks to my life. My whole life is devoted around it.

SIMON: Forgive me, what was that ridicule like? I bet you remember a couple of instances.

MAY: You know, so when you're a kid, you don't know anything. You do a sport because you love it, just like any other person. So when I was 12 years old, we received a call, and, you know, they were calling me a pervert, saying I'm only doing this to swim with the girls. You know, and at 12 years old, you don't think about that. So to get that, it kind of only made me stronger because I thought, OK, you know, no one's going to tell me what I can do as a sport. I'm going to do a sport that I love. I'm going to do the sport because it's my choice to do it. My life will be devoted to proving them wrong and showing them that all men should be in this sport or any sport that they like.

SIMON: OK. Do you think men can bring a certain gift to this sport you love?

MAY: Definitely. I think men - you know, they're not to be compared to females, but they're to complement them. They add a new strength, a new dynamic to the sport. Men can often be said that they are stronger, but that's only going to raise the level because there's females that are stronger than men too. So if a male is stronger, the female will rise to the occasion and become just the strong as them. And the males will have to be just as graceful or flexible. That's only going to create that strength combined, because they are supposed to be unified. It's a sport where everyone needs to swim as one.

SIMON: You're competing at the World Aquatics Championships right now. I confess we don't cover that, you know, the same way we do the Super Bowl or the Women's World Cup now going on in the Pacific. How's it going for you?

MAY: It's incredible. I competed in the acro event. And, you know, like, it's a rule that you have to do seven lifts. And lifts are these acrobatic movements that you would normally see gymnasts do. But the difference is with a gymnast they can use the land, and for the acro routine, they're throwing athletes out of the water up to 5 meters in the air, without them pushing off the bottom. So it's a new event. So to be part of that and to have my sights set on the Paris Olympics, it's a goal that I never thought I would even be able to attain, but now to be at the World Championships and we just got a silver medal.

SIMON: Oh, congratulations.

MAY: Thank you.

SIMON: That's wonderful. So forgive me - I say this as a man of a certain age - you would be not 18 if you got to the Olympics.

MAY: (Laughter) Yeah, I'm a little bit older than 18. Come the Olympics, I'll be 45 years old. And some of the athletes on the team - one of our athletes who actually flies, which means she's the kind of the gymnast on top of all the lifts, had her 17th birthday a few weeks ago. But, you know, these athletes push me. And I've been in the sport a long time. I would say I have a lot of experience. But these athletes have this youth and this hunger for greatness that pushes me to my limits. It makes me not feel my age because, you know, they are so strong. And we show respect for each other and this mutual respect that gives each other strength.

SIMON: Mr. May, the 17-year-old carries the torch into the Olympic Games. You carry it out. How does that sound?

MAY: Exactly. You know, people say, OK, are you too old to be with this team? Absolutely not, you know? Good, tell me that, because I'm going to prove you wrong, and I'm going to break down every wall you put in front of me.

SIMON: Bill May, male artistic swimmer. Thank you so much for being with us.

MAY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Hadeel Al-Shalchi
Hadeel al-Shalchi is an editor with Weekend Edition. Prior to joining NPR, Al-Shalchi was a Middle East correspondent for the Associated Press and covered the Arab Spring from Tunisia, Bahrain, Egypt, and Libya. In 2012, she joined Reuters as the Libya correspondent where she covered the country post-war and investigated the death of Ambassador Chris Stephens. Al-Shalchi also covered the front lines of Aleppo in 2012. She is fluent in Arabic.
Andrew Craig
Andrew Craig is a journalist from Denver, Colorado. He loves to learn about the world, and tell stories that raise critical questions and inspire empathy. A graduate of Yale University (BA '14) and The University of Texas at Austin (MA '18), he began working for NPR in 2019. His hobbies include reading, people watching, and exploring new places.