Only Boy on the Team: Male Synchronized Swimmer Fights for Right to Compete

German synchronized swimmer Niklas Stoepel has won major national competitions, but he has still been banned from competiting at the international level. Officials in the sychronized swimming world, it seems, still aren't ready for men to participate in the sport.

Niklas Stoepel is the only competitive male in synchronized swimming in Germany. The 17-year-old high school student from the western German town of Wattenscheid continues to battle an unusual form of gender discrimination and prejudice in his push to compete at the international level.

So far, though, his applications to compete have been rejected by the international swimming federation FINA, and his prospects for going to the Olympics remain limited at best. In Germany, where the German Swimming Association is a bit more tolerant of men in the sport, Stoepel has already become national youth champion with his FS Bochum team in group competition.

SPIEGEL recently caught up with Stoepel to ask him about his battle for fair treatment and what it's like to be the only guy on his swim team.

SPIEGEL: You're the only male synchronized swimmer in Germany. With your teammates at FS Bochum, you became the top German team. But now you're not being allowed to swim with the German national team in international competitions. Why not?

Stoepel: The German Swimming Association applied to the international swimming association FINA two years ago to let me compete. But FINA rejected the request. I believe that officials just don't want to see any men in this sport.

SPIEGEL: Why do you think that?

Stoepel: You can already sense that at the national level. Many of the judges are more strict in their scoring of me than they are with my female competitors. It's not fair. But I haven't given up my dream of one day competing in an international championship.

SPIEGEL: You swim with sequins on your bathing suit and you have to shave your legs before competing. How do your fellow classmates react to your unusual passion?

Stoepel: Even I am surprised by how relaxed people are about it. I have been swimming in a girl's group for almost 10 years, and so far I have only had one experience where someone laughed at me. Someone at a party was making fun of this guy who swims with a bunch of girls. He said that in front of me, not realizing that I was that boy. The others all laughed, and I think it was more embarrassing for him than it was for me.

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