Something new for Olympic artistic swimming: men

Bill May
Bill May

Artistic swimming, formerly known as synchronized swimming, has been on the Olympic program since 1984. It has always been a women’s-only discipline at the Games. That may change in Paris in 2024.

FINA, the international governing body for aquatic sports, last month amended its rules to allow up to two men per country in the artistic team event at competitions including the Olympics.

However, that has not gone into effect for the 2024 Paris Games. Not yet at least. The official 2024 Olympic documentation for artistic swimming has not been changed from what was initially published in July, before the FINA rule passed.

The International Olympic Committee pointed out that the Paris 2024 event program and athlete quotas were approved in December 2020, 22 months before FINA moved to allow men in the team event at future Olympics.

When asked if it’s too late to change the team event’s athlete makeup for Paris 2024, the IOC said it “is currently working with FINA to understand their long term development plans for the integration of men into artistic swimming, and the opportunities that may exist for men to compete in artistic swimming at the Olympic Games.”

Key U.S. artistic swimming figures believe that the change will go into effect for Paris. The IOC may have an update at or following its next executive board meeting in two weeks.

U.S. artistic swimming head coach Andrea Fuentes is looking forward to having men in her athlete pool for the team event. There are candidates. Since 2015, the world championships have included a mixed duet with one male swimmer and female swimmer, an event that is not on the Olympic program.

“We have males ready to swim, but there are other countries who have not,” Fuentes said, adding that she will decide whether to enter men in upcoming team competitions to test them out. “I want inclusion. … If I have the opportunity to do it, I will for sure use it.”

The current U.S. national team includes 25 athletes: 24 women and one man: Kenny Gaudet, an 18-year-old from Lakeland, Florida, recently highlighted by the Los Angeles Times. Gaudet has competed in solo and duet events, plus is part of the U.S. team in the acrobatic routine that FINA announced last week will be added to the Olympic event for Paris.

“With time, it’s becoming a sport where we need more strength, more power,” Fuentes said. “Naturally, men have more strength.

“We can use the strength of each individual in a different way. We have a female swimmer, for example, who is extremely light. So imagine [a male artistic swimmer] pushing to the air this super light person. You can make the most impactful acrobatics to have ever happened in our sport, no? So it changes everything.”

Bill May, a 43-year-old American, is a pioneer for men’s artistic swimming. He came out of a 10-year retirement — spending much of that time swimming in a Cirque du Soleil water show — when the mixed duet was added to worlds. He partnered with Christina Jones to win the first gold.

May said there have been discussions about adding men since at least 2000, back when he didn’t know of any other men in the sport.

May, who last competed in 2021 and now coaches the Santa Clara Aquamaids program in California, said he learned of male Olympic inclusion via text message from a FINA artistic swimming official on Oct. 20. May described his reaction as “an explosion. Not just for me. For the sport.”

“The world all of a sudden becomes tunnel vision,” said May, who was elected onto FINA’s athlete commission in June. “All of these people that we’ve had that camaraderie together now have the opportunity to compete at a competition we thought we could only dream of.

“Every male athlete, every coach, every federation, every official that is pushing for men, it’s not to push females out. It’s to expand the sport that we all love and respect so much.”

The U.S. still must qualify for the 10-nation 2024 Olympic team event. It failed to reach the last three Olympics. It missed the Tokyo Games by one spot and .2108 of a point in a last-chance qualifier.

At this past summer’s world championships, the U.S. placed sixth in the technical routine, ninth in the free routine and fifth in the highlight (acrobatic) routine, the three events that will make up future Olympic competition. That was its best combined result at a worlds since 2007, the last year it qualified for the Olympic team event.

For 2024, the winner of the 2023 Pan American Games qualifies for the Olympics. The U.S. is expected to contend with Canada and Mexico for that spot.

If the U.S. does not win Pan Ams, its last shot to qualify will be the February 2024 World Championships. The top five nations among those not already qualified via continental championships will round out the 10-nation Olympic field.

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Something new for Olympic artistic swimming: men originally appeared on NBCSports.com