RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil. As the sun rises over this city of six and a half million people, Calvin Houston flashes a smile that’s almost as bright as the luminous celestial body in the sky. “It’s a great day for synch,” he says, using the insider’s slang term for synchronized swimming, a “sport” at the Rio Olympics. “Let’s swim two,” he adds with a laugh, echoing the enthusiasm of his childhood hero, Ernie Banks of the hapless Chicago Cubs of the 50s and 60s.
Houston will be a Ist here at what are officially known as the Games of the XXXI Olympiad: in a sport traditionally dominated by ditzy white females with artificial smiles, he’s a “two-fer”–he’s male, and he’s black.
“Believe me, it wasn’t easy being both the Jackie Robinson and the Billie Jean King of the sport,” he says after a fast-paced workout in which he parlays a series of “eggbeater” kicks into a flamingo position. “None of the owners in the NSSA (National Sychronized Swimming Association) was willing to take a chance on me.”
So Houston took a page from Abe Saperstein’s playbook; before blacks broke the color bar in the National Basketball Association, Saperstein formed the Harlem Globetrotters, a touring team that combined top-flite hoop skills with comic routines. Houston took that inspiration and formed the Harlem Poolhoppers, the only all-black, all-male synchronized swimming group, which has become a big draw on the highly unlucrative hotel and country club summer swimming exhibition circuit.
“People laughed at us at first, so we just played along with it,” he says. He needed a foil comparable to Washington Generals, the hapless, predominantly white team that the Globetrotters beats night in and night out around the world, so he rounded up a motley band of rejects from midwestern sychronized swimming powerhouses such as Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri, and Denison University in Granville, Ohio to form the Washington Bureaucrats, who serve as straight men to the Poolhoppers antics.
“They’re a great bunch of guys,” says the Poolhoppers designated lifter, Maurice Newbill. “They know we’re going to win every night and they’re good sports about it, although some of them hit the amaretto pretty hard in the hotel bars afterwards.”
As hard as it was to overcome the racial barrier, Houston says the gender bar was worse. “We’d try to go into the women’s changing room and the girls would say ‘You don’t belong here!’” he recalls bitterly. “Finally, I’d had enough. I told them ‘We’re just like you–our suits have sequins too!’”
The Poolhoppers are clearly comfortable in their collective skin as they run through their musical intro, a tightly-choreographed routine to Sly and the Family Stone’s “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Again)” that echoes the Globetrotter’s “Sweet Georgia Brown.” “This is America,” Houston says through a mouth that is frequently half-filled with water, “and ebberyglubby otta glee able to blee what he wants.”