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by Jim Provenzano
(Sydney; Nov 5, 2002)

Wrestling saw some of the strongest gay and lesbian competitors in Sydney, with experienced college champs winning, and a large group of novices getting a lot of mat time.

Despite claims of being sold out, most fans didn't show up until noon at the small gym, according to wrestlers. The obscure location near Olympic Park, and claims of being "sold out" dissuaded many, but the athletes carried on in good spirit.

With table tennis clacking in rapid fire at the gym next door, shouts echoed through the wrestling area. Only one serious injury interrupted the event, but mostly bouts went smoothly and finished on time.

The few women competing unfortunately suffered a dearth of competitors. Medals were given to all, including Golden Gate Wrestling Club's Erika Hom.

Among the stalwart novices was Vancouver, Canada-born Andy Quan, who now lives in Sydney. The author of "Calendar Boy," a collection of gay short fiction, enjoyed testing his one year of training, despite being defeated.

Wrestling in Australia, he said, is still in its infancy. "Most of the wrestlers here are from Eastern Europe and Iran," said Quan. "Born and bred Aussies boys don't wrestle, but the Sydney Team from Harbour City Wrestling Club has been keeping it going. The Games has been special in putting a focus on wrestling."

Germany has shown amazing growth in their gay wrestling community in the past few years, and Ewald Kentgen is one of its devotees.

The three matches for the Berlin resident ended well, with one forfeit victory, another against the formidable Johnny Almony, San Francisco Golden Gate Club's captain (who won gold).

"Some of the guys were easygoing, like with Johnny," said Kentgen. "It was like playing. Others are a bit too aggressive, but in general, the atmosphere's fantastic."

Kentgen discovered wrestling late in life, having observed friends wrestle in Amsterdam. In the four years since, gay-inclusive clubs have sprung up all over Germany.

Gay-friendly tournaments include a Christmas vacation event in Frankfurt, and an outdoor event in a park outside of Berlin. "It's like a little summer camp," said Kentgen. A similar event takes place each July at Hillside Camp in Pennsylvania.

New groups in Stuttgart, Cologne, and Belgium have also sprung from the Games, as well as a more organized approach to what has long been a bit of an underground, or misunderstood, sport.

The 2004 Eurogames in Munich has just added wrestling to its schedule, which may lead to more "ringen in Deutcheland."

Michael Ognibene claimed his third gold medal in the 60K category, and even coached novice grapplers between his own matches.

Born and living in New York City, Ognibene also coached high school wrestling for years at Stuyvesant High School, and cautiously returns to the sport with successive years, only to easily win gold.

"I've got 35 years of wrestling experience under my belt. I'm at the point where I'm about to hang up my shoes, so I'm trying to transfer some of this knowledge to the new guys out there."

At 1998's Games, Ognibene decided to wrestle under the country of Bosnia, having strong ties to his friends after living in Sarajevo, some of whom witnessed that victory. "My heart and mind were still in Bosnia, and I wanted to send some message, so I registered under Bosnia." Ognibene was thrilled to meet the lone Bosnian participant in this year's Games before Opening Ceremonies.

The Monday tournament was preceded the previous day with a clinic and welcome practice session, which encouraged novices to make their first efforts in wrestling a bit less awkward.

Federation of Gay Games Vice-President, Golden Gate Wrestling Club coach, a medallist at every Games, and one of this year's Tom Waddell Award nominees, Gene Dermody almost choked up at the medals ceremony, stating without flattery, "This is the best wrestling at the best Gay Games that I've seen in twenty years. The best!"

Read more about Calvin Malone

It as certainly the best for Golden Gate members who racked up a total of 11 individual medals, and won the most points at the tournament. Dermody not only won his first gold after medaling in wrestling at nearly every Games. It was also his birthday.

Calvin Malone trained for about two years with Golden Gate's San Francisco Club. "I competed in a few of our little local tournaments, did okay" (he won several bouts, having been a three-time state champion), "but I think that one of my biggest challenges would be to compete internationally and to see how I rank with people from other countries.

"I got a chance to find out and to prove some thing to myself and that is that I could hold my own against people from other countries. I proved it by winning a Gold Metal in the 74kg weight class. It took me a couple of months to get my weight down and I ended up running in 90 degree Sydney temperature to lose the last four and half pounds. I achieved one of my very challenging goals in life; this is one that I will never forget."

Also on Monday, powerlifting enjoyed an enthusiastic audience of about fifty fans at the sports facility across the street from downtown's Hyde Park. As skateboarders scuffed curbs above, the subterranean gym echoed with the shouts of women and men deadlifting and bench pressing. Dozens of women and men pushed their limits as crews of officials quickly adjusted weights up to the maximum.

San Francisco's Juan Toledo took pride in his efforts, despite being "inconsistent in my squats," he said. "I only got one lift at 145 kilos. Bench at 125 was okay, but on the dead lift, I'm great. I have a strong back."

The complicated scoring method combines age, weight class and a competitor's weight. "There's a specific formula," yet competing with only one Australian and a Brit proved some simple math. San Francisco's Luke Cotrill won a gold in his weight category, before winning more in track & field later that week.

"They're big competitors in powerlifting, but they use power suits," said Toledo of the constricting hybrid singlet that resembles a wetsuit. "I don't use them. I go raw. I know that sounds like "without a condom"," he laughed, "but I like to use my body and feel the weight."

That night at the Sydney Opera House, Federation of Gay Games members schmoozed as a small contingent of singers, band members, cheerleaders and speakers entertained invited athletes, composers, and celebrities.

Longtime Federation members like Sara Waddell Lewinstein, Brent Nicholson Earle and other delegates were honored with awards for their contributions to the Games movement. Hung behind them in the foyer area were banners from each previous Games.

Following the performances and presentations, including the singing of a choral song by local playwright/compser Adam Sandel, guests sipped drinks on the balcony of the Opera House, enjoying the magenta sunset through the grid of Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Several wrestlers from US teams compared tales of last-minute weight-cutting, having completed that arduous task earlier in the day. Athletes demurely showed off their newly-won medals, including Juan Toledo, who had struck silver in powerlifting.

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