How one young man is breaking barriers in artistic swimming

The girls seemed to like having Kenny Gaudet on their team, but some of the parents didn’t like it that much. They went behind his back and quietly complained to the coach.

Kenny shouldn’t play this sportSaid.

As the only student in his part of Florida who wanted to pursue artistic swimming – known then as synchronized swimming – Gaudet had no choice but to join an all-girls club. Only much later did his trainer tell him about the grumbling of the adults.

“I’m glad she hid it from me,” he says. “I was so young and mentally unprepared for something like this.”

A decade later, the 18-year-old remains an outlier as the only man on the US national team. The Olympics don’t allow men to swim artistically – at least not yet – but Gaudet can compete on the international circuit, where he and partner Claudia Coletti finished fifth in the mixed duet at the 2022 World Championships.

“Kenny is so powerful,” says Coletti. “I really like it because he can lift me super high so I have more things to do in the air.”

On a summer’s day at the team’s UCLA training ground, Gaudet practices alone in a corner of the pool while the women practice their technique drill. An assistant trainer watches and jumps from her seat to correct his shoulder rotation on a specific movement.

The USA Artistic Swimming Team, including Kenny Gaudet, center, gathers for practice at UCLA in September 2022.

Kenny Gaudet, center, is the only man on the US national team.

(Christina House/Los Angeles Times)

“There are so many complicated things that we have to do,” says Gaudet. “We have to find ways to get our bodies to move the way we want them to.”

Although artistic swimming is commonly associated with women, both sexes played a role in its creation, performing “water ballets” for audiences in the 19th century. As these demonstrations turned into competition, men were left out.

“Kenny is so powerful. I really like it because he can lift me super high so I have more things to do in the air.”

— US artistic swimmer Claudia Coletti

It wasn’t until the 1990s that an American named Bill May brought them back into the game, learning the sport as a kid and moving to California to join a well-known club. Competing in national and select international events, he retired for a decade to perform for Cirque du Soleil, then returned when the International Swimming Federation added mixed duets to the 2015 World Championships.

“I really think it’s an evolution,” May said after winning gold with his partner. “I think this sport will grow and admit more men.”

Last summer, a dozen mixed couples competed at the World Championships in Budapest, Hungary. Meetings in the regular season include the men’s solo. “It’s the best community because there aren’t that many of us,” says Gaudet. “We’re really competitive, but we’re also super supportive.”

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A showcase for compelling storytelling from the Los Angeles Times.

Participating in the development of artistic swimming was never his intention. He simply followed a sister who started the sport in 2011.

Being the only boy on a local YMCA team didn’t feel that strange for someone who was also a cheerleader alongside girls at school. Despite some kids teasing him and pushing him away from the pool, Gaudet had good reason to stick around.

“I can move my body differently in the water,” he says. “I like that I can express myself more in the water than on land.”

Each year brought improvements and encouraging results in youth competitions. But the team only trained a couple of times a week and when the national team invited Gaudet to a trial, the learning curve was steep.

At the elite level, artistic swimmers remain stationary between exercises and spend long periods without holding onto their side. “Kenny went to the wall, listened to us and then came back,” remembers US coach Andrea Fuentes. “We thought, wow, he needs a lot of practice.”

The USA Artistic Swimming Team with Kenny Gaudet, center, trains at UCLA.

The USA Artistic Swimming Team with Kenny Gaudet, center, trains at UCLA.

(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

“I can move my body differently in the water. I like how I can express myself in the water rather than on land.”

— US artistic swimmer Kenny Gaudet

Despite this, the coaches liked his attitude and the timing was right as male swimmers were becoming a bigger part of international competitions.

“This is a very exciting development,” says Nicole Hoevertsz, a former artistic swimmer who now works as an executive at the International Olympic Committee. “I really hope that we will have mixed duets in the games very soon and that men can also be part of the teams.”

Unlike female couples — “very fitting, like two identical, perfect people,” says Gaudet — male-female duos combine different styles. The trick is to let strength and grace complement each other.

By 2019, Gaudet had won his first mixed duet at the US Junior Olympiads. Then came gold medals in male solo at the 2021 National Championships and in mixed duet at the 2021 Junior Pan Am Games, earning him a permanent spot on the national list.

“I saw him as a rock star,” says Fuentes. “He has fire in him and also a very positive way of being a teammate.”

Last season, Gaudet reached the podium in a number of international meetings with Coletti and Ivy Davis. The medals were great, but something even more important happened.

Sitting in a hot tub and taking a break during practice, Gaudet gestures to his female teammates working on their routine in an adjacent pool.

“I love this team because they give me great support,” he says. “I just feel like I belong.”

Artistic swimming has made a place for men, with the possibility of Olympics in the future, so no one wonders why Gaudet is doing this anymore. Nobody complains. How one young man is breaking barriers in artistic swimming

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