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By Charles Carson

IGLA Championship CollageDid you know that the organization you are now a part of came close to having the acronym GLINDA?

Rafael Montijo, one of IGLA’s co-founders, came up with that combination of letters as a kind of loose connection to “The Wizard of Oz,” what with its images of rainbows and such. Gay and Lesbian International Natation/Nadadores … something (Dorothy?) … Association? Aquatics? None of us old-timers can remember what words Rafael jokingly tossed out to fit that acronym. What we do remember is that it took the admittedly awful suggestion of one person to get the rest of us brainstorming something more appropriate. And that was how team reps tossed GLINDA aside and chose “International Gay & Lesbian Aquatics,” aka IGLA.

The history of gay and lesbian swimming teams — and, thus, IGLA — is forever linked with the history of the Gay Games in intent, location, size and complexity. Both started in California. The first gay swim team with its own practices and coach began in Los Angeles some months prior to 1982’s Gay Games I. Most of the 125 swimmers at those Games were in fact from teams in the San Francisco and Los Angeles areas. There were enough of us, though, from places like Honolulu, Tucson, Minneapolis, Edmonton, Sydney and New York to keep it from being an entirely local phenomenon. Before the meet was over, team leaders had exchanged phone numbers and addresses and an informal network of gay swimmers had begun.

By 1986 and Gay Games II, gay and lesbian teams included San Diego, Seattle and Vancouver. With more than 400 swimmers at those Games, the team leaders decided that we were both enjoying the exercise and having too much fun to wait four years to get together again. San Diego’s team volunteered to host a meet in early 1987.

About 120 showed up in March, 1987 at the Allied Gardens Pool for what was called the “West Coast Gay Swim League Championships.” The fact that it was as large as Gay Games I was an encouraging sign. Rafael led the team leaders’ meeting of about 15 people, and he and his West Hollywood team volunteered to collect information to publish a directory of gay and lesbian swimming contacts.

Just as Gay Games II was held in San Francisco to “smooth out the kinks” from the first one, San Diego volunteered to host a second gay championships in 1988 with plans to include water polo. Vancouver agreed to host a meet in 1989 so that everyone could get used to the pool and as a practice for themselves prior to Gay Games III in 1990.

Meanwhile, Team Seattle’s first Northwest Gay & Lesbian Sports Festival — which included swimming — began in July 1987. It was at that meet that GLINDA got the shove and the name IGLA was adopted. There was much hopeful talk that the word “international” would soon encompass more than the U.S. and Canada. Also, a retroactive decision was made to call San Diego’s 1987 meet the first official IGLA Championships, beginning a tradition that is now a decade old.

However, IGLA existed as little more than a collection of names and addresses until Gay Games III. The team reps’ meetings in Vancouver in 1989 and 1990 saw the first discussions of maintaining a records database specifically for gay and lesbian swimmers and creating brochures to spread the word about our existence. We elected our first officers. The Pacific and Atlantic “basin” concepts were created as an incentive to get officers from outside North America’s west coast.

IGLA III in 1991 was a real turning point. In particular, the sheer size of the IGLA Championships that year meant we had reached a new level. That meet had as many participants as at Gay Games II, and West Hollywood’s organizing efforts became a model — sometimes followed, sometimes not — for subsequent hosts. With participation by more than 500 athletes each year, IGLA needed large, world class facilities such as Seattle’s Federal Way and Montreal’s Olympic Pool simply to hold everyone who wanted to attend. Three days rather than two were needed to run a full schedule. Soon, IGLA’s team reps realized that written guidelines were needed to help hosts run things efficiently.

The old days of IGLA’s being a simple mailing list maintained by one or two people were over, and the officers were increasingly being called upon to deal with issues of finance, marketing, recordkeeping and outreach. Some of it was planned, such as purchasing a brick (with IGLA’s full name spelled out) on the International Swimming Hall of Fame’s Walk of Fame. Other work has been more complicated: divising rules for our championship trophies; encouraging women’s participation; strengthening diving and water polo; learning various guidelines for joining swimming federations around the world; keeping up with the immense growth of the Gay Games.

Rick Windes of the San Francisco Tsunami recalls that in its early days IGLA “grew in itsy-bitsy little pieces with an occasional bump in the road.” The bumps were often a product of IGLA’s spread, like the Gay Games, from west to east and around the world. As a volunteer organization, it has been a challenge to manage the growth. Many of us are new to aquatics, or at least have been away from swimming, diving and water polo for years. We have lost many, many team leaders due to AIDS. Because of our inherent separateness from other aquatics bodies, we’ve been learning on the job.

Fortunately, after ten years, some of the on-the-job training is paying off. The list of hosts with big-meet experience includes Chicago, Washington, New York and Paris. The list of local meets our teams host is too numerous to mention. We’re increasing our ties to national governing bodies (we have a lot to teach them as well as vice versa). IGLA’s officers now write e-mails to each other almost every day — a big change from when contact was by phone a few times a year. We even have a website, because we know that there are a lot more gay and lesbian swimmers out there to reach.

We also know that IGLA is just ten years young. We’ll probably have a lot more GLINDA-like suggestions along the way, and team reps and officers will continue to laugh in spite of them to keep IGLA going and growing. Some of the decisions won’t be easy, but they’re worth struggling through because our history proves that gays and lesbians and aquatics are an excellent match. And that’s just what we were hoping for at Allied Gardens in 1987.