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A Few Weeks Before Cleveland’s Gay Games 9, a Swimmer Looks Back – and Forward

By Charlie Carson, IGLA Delegate to the Federation of Gay Games

For decades, no one had cracked the 20 second barrier in the 50 yard freestyle event (yards are commonly contested in U.S. high school and collegiate swimming).

But when Joe Bottom broke it at the 1977 NCAA Championships, he smashed it – to 19.70. A three-tenths of a second drop over just 50 yards or even 50 meters, when increments usually fall by a hundredth or two, is truly smashing it. Joe’s talent and training propelled him to the record, but there was another factor at play.

The 20-second barrier was broken at Cleveland State University’s then-new Robert Busbey Natatorium. CSU’s pool has proven time and again to be built for setting records, due to its depth (which provides buoyancy) and overflow gutters (waves dissipate over the edges rather than back at the swimmers).

Gay Games 9’s swimming competition will be contested over the international standard long course 50 meters in that very pool, and several women and men are looking to break existing masters marks there in August. Virtually all participants who show up in shape and ready to go will find that CSU’s pool will help them set personal bests.

In eight previous editions, Gay Games swimming increasingly has been held in world class facilities such as CSU’s and Sydney’s Olympic Aquatic Centre. Our events are fully sanctioned and are run by certified officials. Swimmers have set the most marks among all sports held at the Gay Games. But it took several editions to reach this standard of excellence.

After just the first day of swimming competition at Gay Games I in 1982, team representatives held a meeting in the spectator seating area of the small San Francisco State University pool to talk about how things were going.

We were still a little bit giddy from the opening ceremony and making new friends, but now we were getting down to the business of our sport. We wanted to do two things – start a contact list for future training and competitions, and discuss adjustments in the running of that meet (ad hoc relays that had been permitted on day 1 were discontinued; unusual age group divisions like 35-and-up would remain for this meet).

I remember several of us said we’ll run it more like a standard masters meet “next time.”

Next time, however, wasn’t guaranteed. A good number of the Gay Games organizers were either burnt out or a bit overwhelmed by the logistics, as well as the ongoing fight over the initial use of the word “Olympic.” Even Gay Games founder Tom Waddell said he was ambivalent about holding a second games.

They just needed a few good nights’ sleeps. San Francisco’s LGBT community and the city itself soon confirmed that there would indeed by a second Gay Games four years later. The new Gay Games II sports organizers – including Hal Herkenhoff, a tall, handsome blond swimmer known to his friends as Buffy – adopted feedback from 1982 to upgrade officiating and run competitions according to standard rules.

When we arrived back in San Francisco in 1986, networks of teams were growing within each sport. Several LGBT sports governing bodies, such as International Gay & Lesbian Aquatics (IGLA), were founded by teams at Gay Games II. We enjoyed the fitness and camaraderie fostered by the Gay Games so much that we didn’t want to wait another four years for a next time. IGLA began the first of its annual championship tournaments just one year later.

Now we have 30 years of “next times,” with rules discussions largely in the past and a still-growing network of teams around the world.

A Gay Games is a very special next time. Each host city offers unique opportunities to celebrate and showcase the premier multi-sport world championships for LGBT adults and our friends.

Cleveland and Akron take the Gay Games to locations not commonly associated with the main centers of LGBT culture and activism – and that’s what makes this an important Gay Games. Every registered participant sends positive messages about sports and culture to people who’ve rarely or never pondered ideas of the LGBT community outside of a sexual context.

Yet we’re not giving up anything in the way of facilities in Cleveland and Akron – the sport and culture venues are superb with managers eager to host our events. Participants in sports like football, golf and athletics will be well taken care of and greeted warmly in Akron.

At the main hub in Cleveland, swimmers will enjoy what is arguably the fastest pool ever for a Gay Games. Diving will also be at CSU, and water polo is just a 15 minute bus ride east at Case Western University’s newly renovated pool (I hear Toronto is turning out in force for water polo). Open water swimmers will compete over half-mile, one-mile or two-mile distances at Edgewater Park in Lake Erie. And, as is now traditional, we’ll tickle the public’s and each other’s funny bones with the Pink Flamingo talent show event.

This time is Cleveland and Akron’s time to shine. Organizers are finalizing plans to showcase our talents and abilities not only to their region but to the world. If you’ve been on the fence about registering, I hope you’ll decide to join us for Gay Games 9 – and not wait until next time!

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