By PAUL NEWBERRY -- Associated Press
SYDNEY -- Martin Short, Olympian?
The hilarious "Saturday Night Live" skit, in which Short donned a life jacket to pursue his dream of becoming the first man to win a gold medal in synchronized swimming, has turned out to be no laughing matter.
FINA, the governing body of world swimming, took a major step Thursday toward approving men for synchronized events, fulfilling the virtually one-man campaign of American Bill May.
"I'm ecstatic," May said in a telephone interview from his home in California. "I can't believe it happened. I didn't even know they were going to be voting. It kind of freaked me out."
May, a 21-year-old native of Cicero, N.Y., has bucked FINA's rules limiting synchronized swimming to women. Along the way, he's endured his share of ridicule -- much of it stemming from comparisons with Short.
"There's always people who put you down," May said. "Luckily, I've been around a lot of people who encouraged me. That made it easier to go after what I wanted."
Short and Harry Shearer starred in the memorable "SNL" skit in the early 1980s, displaying hokey routines and longing for the day when men would be accepted in synchronized swimming.
Of course, it didn't help that Short wore a bulky life preserver and nose plug during his time in the water. As he explained, "I'm not that strong a swimmer."
May is an excellent swimmer but stands alone in his quest for acceptance.
"I've never competed against another man," he conceded.
Nevertheless, FINA approved a U.S.-backed proposal to allow mixed pairs in international competition, beginning with the 2002 World Cup in Zurich, Switzerland.
May, who was considering retirement, is now looking forward to competing at the 2004 Olympic Games. Mixed pairs have been approved for the European championships, and several American men have followed May into the sport.
"People are accepting this," he said. "There's a great chance it will pass for Athens."
FINA referred the matter to its technical committee, which will draft rules next year for mixed pairs. While the current guidelines do not specifically bar men from competing, the general program includes no categories for males or mixed pairs.
American rules are more lenient.
May and his partner, Olympian Kristina Lum, won the national duet championships in 1998 and 2000. In their only opportunity to compete against the best teams in the world, they earned a silver medal at the 1998 Goodwill Games.
"Of course, I'm very disappointed that Bill is not here with me," said Lum, who will compete in the team event at Sydney. "He had the same dream I had."
May gave his partner a stuffed animal before she left for the Olympics.
"I took a part of him with me," Lum said. "He said it will bring me good luck."
American coach Chris Carver called the inclusion of men a natural progression in the sport.
"It will take the choreography to a new level," Carver said. "Mixed pairs is something we're used to in figure skating. Why not synchronized swimming?"
Another U.S. Olympian, Heather Pease-Olson, supported FINA's decision.
"There's a whole new aspect with males," she said. "It's a lot like the pairs in figure skating. There's a lot of interplay, a lot of high lifts, that are not there with the (women-only) duets. It's all very exciting."