“…I know you want to challenge everybody’s idea of the image of boys in this sport. I get it. But the people who count don’t care about that shit. They just won’t. Seriously, Bart, you give the best performance when you just let yourself swim. I know you’re happiest when you’re not fighting anyone’s idea of who you are too.”
“So what am I supposed to do?” I press the heels of my hands to my eyes. I can’t stop the tears now.
“Stop caring what everyone else thinks. Just give it up, and swim.”
Bart is a distance swimmer. And he’s pretty good at it, too. But these days he’s getting distracted watching the synchronized swimmers (the girls) and the divers (the guys), and his coach is starting to notice. When he gets frustrated during a race and accidentally knocks another swimmer onto the floor, drawing blood, he gets suspended. On his way out of the pool, he notices that the synchro team is having a tryout day and figures, why not go for it. And that’s when he discovers he’s actually pretty good at it. In fact, the synchro coach says he’s a natural. The problem is, there’s not much room in the world of synchronized swimming for mixed teams, and some of the synchro moms are none too pleased to see a boy in the pool, ruining the team’s chances of making it to nationals.
As Bart gets to know his teammates (particularly Erika and Chelsea), he becomes more and more invested in the sport, but it’s not an easy path. It’s not just that there’s no guarantee of actually finding a space for competition (the Olympics and many other competitions don’t include mixed teams or duets). The other problem is that Bart can’t seem to catch a break from the negativity from classmates, his old swimming coach, and even his own dad. He suffers from homophobic taunts in the halls at school, the competitions seem to discriminate against guys taking part in the sport, and his father is threatening to stop paying for his sporting expenses if he doesn’t go back to racing. All in all, it’s fair to say that Bart is having a hard time continuing to feel passionate about his choice to move into synchro. And to top it all off, he’s having some internal struggles over his sexual and romantic feelings toward his teammates and the really cute diver he keeps running into in the locker room.
McFerran’s narrative is complicated, nuanced, and contains a lot of food for thought about the place of guys in traditionally female sports, the detrimental effects of sustained homophobia, and the struggles of finding a space within the complex terrain of sexual identities. The relationships are realistically messy, filled with awkward intimate moments, sexual tension, and insecurity. I appreciated that, although Bart considers himself to be bisexual (though he is less than willing to admit it until later in the novel), he understands that he can still be with a girl and it doesn’t mean he’s automatically straight; there is a space in between for being unsure, and for exploring.
Although the ending wraps up somewhat neatly, there is still enough ambiguity to keep it all somewhat true to life. I was also glad that the family drama between Bart, his mother, and his father was not suddenly fixed by the end, although up until the last few chapters, his father was incredibly frustrating.
There is a lot to appreciate in Synchro Boy, particularly the fact that, even though there is a “coming out” of sorts, the novel is not in and of itself a coming out story. The considerations of masculinity and femininity and the spaces in between is also refreshing.
Anyone who has struggled to exist as feminine or masculine outside of traditionally prescribed assumptions in society will respect Bart’s journey and find much to sympathize with. Synchro Boy would certainly be worth including in classroom or school libraries.
Rob Bittner has a Ph.D. in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies (Simon Fraser University) and is also a graduate of the MA in Children’s Literature program at The University of British Columbia in Vancouver, British Columbia. He loves reading a wide range of literature, but particularly stories with diverse depictions of gender and sexuality.