Sexism in the pool

Kenyon Smith is a synchronized-swimming star. But he's also a guy. Does that mean he should be banned from the Olympics?

By Catherine Price
Published March 18, 2008 4:30PM (EDT)

Here's a newspaper lead for you from the Wall Street Journal: "Kenyon Smith, a lithe and good-looking young man who just had his 18th birthday, is an Aquamaid." An aqua what? The article continues:

"He swims, in unison, with the Santa Clara Aquamaids, a club of synchronized swimmers. All the other Aquamaids are girls. They wear sparkly bathing suits, gobs of makeup and starlet smiles as they splash-dance around the pool. They show a lot of leg."

Apparently, so does Smith. He keeps up with the ladies; an accompanying video shows him baring a sleek thigh in perfect coordination with his teammates. But according to the Journal, Smith isn't just a synchronized swimming interloper: He is a phenomenon. "His twists and splits and head-down pirouettes are crisp and fast," says the Journal. "His rocket thrusts him out of the water, pointy-toes first, all the way up to his armpits. He can swim almost 75 yards underwater without blacking out."

However, despite his talents, Smith is not allowed to go to the Olympics or get a sports scholarship for a U.S. college. Why is that? Because he's a guy.

Yes, apparently even if you are among the best of the best in the world of synchronized splashing (75 yards? Is that some sort of hazing ritual?), if you possess a penis, you can't -- if you'll excuse the mixed metaphors in favor of a bad pun -- play ball.

I've got to say, this doesn't seem fair. There is pairs ice dancing, after all -- and the ban on men on synchro swim teams doesn't even have a strong historical precedent. According to the Journal, men were enthusiastic synchronized swimmers till the 1950s. So why can't Smith compete?

Bill May, another frustrated synchro sensation who currently is the only male swimmer at Cirque du Soleil's water show at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas, thinks the ban on men is "narrow-minded." I agree. There may not be many American teenage guys passionate about synchronized swimming (for any of you questioning Smith's intentions, please note that one of his main partners is his sister), but the ones who love it should be allowed to compete.

And as a separate note, if Smith (or May) were a woman trying to break into professional football -- helped, of course, by a preternatural ability to catch interceptions and tackle fullbacks -- he would probably be the subject of an inspirational feature film. But as a guy trying to break into the decidedly unmasculine sport of synchronized swimming, Smith has been the subject of ridicule by comics looking for a cheap joke. If the taunting gets to him -- which I hope it doesn't -- I suggest that Smith challenge his critics to swim 75 yards underwater without taking a breath. Then we'll see who still has the strength to laugh.

Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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