Earlier this week, ESPN Digital & Print presented a unique cross-platform story about Bill May, America’s lone male synchronized swimmer, and his improbable quest for Olympic gold. It is a story about a man called out of retirement at still a very young age – May is 37 – to chase his dreams. It’s also a story about synchronized swimming, a sport that is allowing men to compete to increase its following. Contributing writer Taffy Brodesser-Akner shared some insight on her experience developing such a story, featured in ESPN The Magazine’s Golden State Warriors issue on newsstands today:
How did this story come together?
A long time ago, I taught a reported essay class, and one woman, a terrific writer named Aizita Magana, chose to bring in chapters of her book-in-progress, which was kind of a biography of the breath. It was fascinating. One of her chapters was on synchronized swimming. I told her she should do a bigger article on it, but she was dedicated to the book. About three years later, when I found out FINA [the international governing body of aquatic sports] was allowing men to compete, I asked her if she wanted to write the story, because if she didn’t, I did. To my endless gratitude, she didn’t and gave me her blessing to proceed.
What did you find most challenging about this piece?
There are a lot of clichés in writing about synchronized swimming — there’s a tendency to make fun of the swimmers for their flamboyance; that “SNL” [“Saturday Night Live”] sketch keeps coming up. My first editor and I thought the best move was to take all of this very seriously, but by the time I got to know the swimmers, I knew I had no choice but to do that anyway.
What has been the most interesting response to your story?
The best response so far is that as far as I know, Bill May hasn’t read the story. He texted me to say sorry, he’s been in the pool, people keep telling him how great it is but he’s at practice. And that’s the essential “Bill Mayness” right there.