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Tsunami Hosts World's Biggest Gay Swim Meetby Jim Provenzano
Bay Area Reporter
It's not often that hundreds of lesbian and gay swimmers meet for a world competition; rarer still, divers, water polo players and drag queens. But that's the IGLA tradition, and this year over a thousand aquatic jocks will compete.
This year's thirteenth edition of the International Gay and Lesbian Aquatics Championships, hosted by San Francisco Tsunami Swim Club and Tsunami Polo, will fill Stanford University's three pools Friday through Sunday, for a weekend full of record-breaking victories, personal bests and fabulous aquatic fun.
But in addition to the fun and games, IGLA 2003 is about serious swimming.
With strong local participation, co-chair Joe Healy said, "We have nearly 200 participants representing 17 teams from the greater Northern California region, from Sacramento to Monterey."
78 teams from 20 states and 12 countries will converge on the world-class Avery Aquatic Center.
"We've also got a wide range of people - old and young, straight and gay," said Healy. The oldest participant is 89 years old; the youngest only 19.
As Greg Louganis struggled with being the greatest (albeit closeted) diver in the world at the 1984 Olympics, Adam Gutierrez was a mere one year old.
Jump to May, 2001 at a meet between California High and Granada High varsity divers. Gutierrez, then a senior from Monte Vista, took first place with a score of 393.45.
After about eight months studying dance, "I did a little time at the San Francisco Ballet School," Gutierrez said, he didn't feel like devoting his life to it. He took some time off to focus on school, and was drawn to diving.
The Danville resident practiced with the high school team, but only for the last part of the year. His coach recommended he train with Phil Tonne, a former US Diving Team coach.
After traveling to a few competitions, Gutierrez took a year off to study in Spain. In July 2002, he started training seriously with Tonne and coach Danielle Leach.
Currently enrolled as a double major in linguistics and language studies at UC Santa Cruz, he's on their Division 3 team.
"It's not very serious," he said. "But right now I'm just into springboard."
The higher and more demanding platform diving is, he said, "a completely different realm, and a completely different rhythm. I took a couple of spills trying to do things."
Having started at sixteen, Gutierrez does admit there is a youth factor. "That holds true for any sports, like gymnastics and diving."
Along with the occasional gymnastics class, "Just to fool around," his training regimen includes two to three-hours of diving most days, and early morning team gym workouts a few times a week.
"It keeps a sense of discipline."
In seeking perfection, he noted that divers "have an incredibly abnormal body awareness. I definitely feel that ballet helped, even playing basketball. One thing that set me back in diving was that my feet turn out. I've made a conscious effort to not do that."
About his participation at IGLA, Gutierrez is looking forward to a different, and gay-friendly, sports environment. Does being the youngest out athlete at a gay tournament make a difference?
"Not really," he said. "Coming from a supportive family, it's not to make a statement, because I've grown up in the Bay Area."
Gutierrez doesn't see the pressures of the closet that divers like Louganis experienced decades ago.
"I don't know if it's the year we're in, but it's leaning away from the original stigma," he said. "It's becoming more natural to blend in."
"Within two weeks of swimming, I didn't not like swimming. So I try-out for the diving team, but to my coach's surprise, I couldn't even dive of the side of the pool!"
His coach made a deal with that he would swim for nearly two hours, but could only dive for only fifteen minutes.
As his skills improved, he went from swimming to diving. Having only competed at local gay swim meets that didn't include diving, he's looking forward to do the IGLA meet.
His preferred dives are a Forward 2 double in a pike position on one-meter. On three-meter, the forward 2 1/2 in a pike position is his preference.
One of only nine divers, Berkeley's Derek Douglas said their competition may be "a bit underrepresented. We knew in Australia there'd be a conflict with the US Diving meet in Hawaii. We lost four good divers for that meet."
Yet Douglas said he feels committed to diving this weekend, despite having not trained as much as he'd like.
A silver medalist in the three-meter, and a bronze medalist on platform at Sydney's Games, Douglas will be competing in one- and three-meter, and possibly in synchronized diving with visiting Australian Stephen Shaw in the 30-39 age group.
Despite the concerted effort in Sydney to organize diving events, the addition of Manchester's Eurogames kept some overseas this weekend.
Others are off to Hawaii, where another diving competition will take place. Among its organizers is Games medalist Jeff Stabile. Douglas said that gay divers and their events have gotten more respect as "the old guard falls away."
A doctor of Acupuncture and Chinese Herbal Medicine, Seattle's David Dawson started diving in high school.
"I had a crush on a kid in my French class who played water polo," he said. "When swim season came round, the coach asked if anyone wanted to try diving. Six weeks after my first competition, I won the regional championships."
Through his undergraduate years, Dawson said, "Diving became one of my sole ego boosts, and I really focused on it. I transferred a couple times, to get to work with better coaches."
He ended up diving at Indiana University, for coach Hobie Billingsley, "one of the most important figures in diving, and a phenomenal coach," said Dawson. Indiana University was the #1-ranked diving school in the nation while Dawson was there.
While being gay may not be an issue for some, for Dawson, it had a significant impact.
"About halfway through my undergrad years, I was diving with club in California, and had a crush on one of the other divers (crushes apparently played a big part in my aquatics history!). We never got past the flirting stage, really. But his mom panicked, and made a big scene about it, outing me to my coach and my parents.
"This was the late 70s, and there wasn't a whole lot of understanding floating around." Moving back east to IU, he ended up gradually going back into the closet, and marrying.
"It wasn't until my mid-thirties that I actually fully accepted myself and came out, while living in Scotland - which made it easier, in some ways. I was able to be myself, without fear of judgment. My family was deeply affirming and supportive."
While in Scotland, he not only became the Scottish 1-meter champion, but also set a national record.
Upon moving back to the States, competing at Gay Games in NYC was high on his to-do list.
"I was sure I was going to win everything. I just couldn't imagine there would be many gay divers there," Dawson said.
The 62 other divers, including several ex-Olympians, surprised him. "I modified my expectations somewhat, but still came home with two silver medals."
Since then he's competed at the Games in both Amsterdam and Sydney, earning nine medals, four of them gold. He competed at the 2001 IGLA in Toronto, with similar results.
As to his training regimen and preferred dives, he said, "I'll be working on them all! I'm 45, and this takes a little more work than it used to!"
Dawson said that fewer would compete in platform diving. "Not that many people have occasion to train for it, and it can be intimidating, to put it mildly."
In Sydney just last year, three American relay records were set, all by San Francisco Tsunami club members. The team of Dan Veatch, Corey Carlisle, Geoff Glaser and Scott Robinson clocked 3:46.03 for the 400m free relay and 8:13.69 for the 800.
The 160-199 squad of Stephen Martel, Brian Fitzgibbons, Bart McDermott and Todd Oakes swam a US record 3:52.36 for the 400 free relay.
The 30-34 through 45-49 men's age groups has the highest number of swimmers, making it more competitive. About 25 percent of IGLA's participants are women. Older age groups have several other participants, and for the first time, water poloís women will have their own tournament (see last weekís Sports Complex).
San Franciscan Dan Veatch, who competed at Seoul in 1988, will be one of four former Olympians swimming at IGLA 2003.
A member of the University of San Francisco Masters since 1993, Veatch finished seventh in the 200-meter backstroke at Seoul.
Veatch was also a gold medalist in the 1986 Aquatic World Championships in the 4X100 meter medley relay; a gold medalist in the 1987 Pan Pacific Games; a double gold medalist in the 1989 Pan Pacific Games in Tokyo; and a silver medalist at the 1991 Pan American games, where he captained the US team.
After nearly losing a few toes in a boatís propeller at the 1992 Maui Channel Swim, Veatch decided to train for another open water event, the One Hour Swim, to retrain. The following January, he swam 5,975 yards in 60 minutes, a new Masters record.
From 1983 to 1992, he represented the United States in competitions all over the world. A graduate of both Princeton and UC Berkeley, Veatch will compete in 100 and 200 backstroke, 100 and 200 individual medley, and 400 freestyle.
Having broken the US national Masters record in the 800-meter freestyle relay at a time of 8.13, does he hope for an even better time than his previous array of victories?
"I definitely set my goals in that direction," he said. "I focus on my own performance and less on my competitors. Iím happy as long as I go out and swim as well as I can."
When he won a slot on the Olympic team, being gay wasnít even on his radar. "I was 23, and had not dealt with my sexuality yet."
His trip to Seoul was, nevertheless, "a fantastic experience." What he described as more grueling were the team trials six weeks beforehand.
"I was an alternate on the 1984 team, so making it in 1988 was my goal. I started swimming competitively when I was six. So it was just a personal goal to qualify." He did, and finished seventh in Seoul in the 200 meter backstroke.
Did such a high-placed competition have its pressures? "Sure, but it was also my job at the time."
Having moved to South Florida to train, he said, "There was much greater pressure at the trial than at the Olympics. You have to finish first or second to represent the US. But once youíre there, your goals change from actually competing, to making finals, to winning a medal."
Now 38, he admires gay athletes for coming out, but as for coming out at Olympic-level, he said, "I donít know what it would be like now. It was more of a non-issue at that point in my life. The media, and recent legislation, have come far in 20 years, so itís easier for athletes."
Although a USF Masters swimmer for eleven years, he said, "In Sydney, we all just joined Tsunami," which helped make it the largest Games team contingent ever.
"Thatís what makes IGLA and the Gay Games fun at so many levels. Youíre participating with people who have excelled at their sport. Itís fun to watch people who are passionate and successful at what they do."
Veatch and his boyfriend had trained for Gay Games V together, having met just six months prior to swimming in Amsterdam. "He had such a good time. I gave him swimming lessons. He also competed in Sydney as well."
Having won nine gold medals in Sydney, Veatch didnít, however, wear them all at any point. "I shy away form that kind of thing. Itís more about my performance. Did I race well, and give it my best?"
While most of his numerous awards are "sitting in a drawer," Veatch does have one particularly amusing favorite. At the Spring Lake One Mile Open Water Race, in Santa Rosa, Veatch, the first place finisher, was dubbed "Overall Top Male."
Jim Ballard, a Palo Alto native who now lives in Los Angeles, swam for Calís NCAA championship team, and currently holds a Masters world record for the 100-meter backstroke, which he set at the Gay Games in Sydney, Australia last year.
Ballard's time of 1:03.56 for the 100-meter (long course) backstroke eclipsed Tom Wolf's world and US standard of 1:03.68 set two years ago.
Ballard noted the tremendous growth in gay and lesbian sports in recent years. "In 1986, when San Francisco hosted the second Gay Games, we were struggling to find a pool," he says. "Now weíre at Stanford, in one of the best facilities in the world."
Heíll be swimming in the 50, 100, and 200-meter backstroke, and the 50 and 100-meter butterfly, with almost 100 athletes from West Hollywoodís WH20.
A native of Palo Alto, Ballard won his first national record at the Stanford pool where heíll be swimming this weekend.
He swam through college, and studied at Cal Berkeley. "After that, most of the time, Iíve been swimming."
As to his sexuality, Ballard said, "I hadnít quite figured it out, and didnít come out until law school."
He was aware of other gay swimmers, though. "You knew most of the people, but the concept was not to date them. It was to beat them."
Having been with West Hollwoodís team since 1982, just after it formed, Ballard has competed in every Games except the first one, winning "probably 40-something medals. Itís hard to remember!" he laughed. "Anyway, I have a lot."
That doesnít stop him from checking out the competition. "There are some really fast people, almost at their college times."
In 1994ís New York Games, when he first broke the world record in the 100-meter backstroke, it made the front page of "The New York Times," along with Ballardís being a long-term HIV survivor.
He described the fairly unusual way his achievement became known. In New York, at one point during the Pink Flamingos show, the names of people who had died of AIDS was announced, followed by the more uplifting news of Ballardís world record.
Dressed as one of over a dozen Norma Desmonds at that moment, he took a bow. "The place went kind of nuts."
Asked if he sees himself as a symbol of hope for those with HIV, Ballard said, "Thereís hope for all of us. Whether youíre positive or negative, if you participate, it somehow makes this place just a little better."
Back then, Ballardís goal was simply "to survive the next three years, until the next round of therapies came along, to just hold on until they come up with something new."
Fortunately, his three-year planís been expanded.
"Itís a stretch to say itís manageable," he said. "The side effects can be miserable, but theyíre getting better."
Not that he lets it bother him in the pool. "When youíre in a race, you donít worry about whether youíre positive or negative. You donít get a medal for a T-cell count. You get something better. You get to live."
Teams compete for the top prize in performances that combine music, dance, costumes, props, synchronized swimming and diving. This yearís theme is "Wild Wild West." Expect a stylish combination of bathing caps and cowboy chaps.
"Pink Flamingo started as a drag relay and morphed over the years to become a highlight of gay swim meets," says co-chair Joe Healy.
"How can you go wrong with over 1000 men and women in Speedos?"
The Pink Flamingo begins at 4pm on Sunday. Entrance for spectators to the competition and parking are free.
Tsunamiís San Francisco social events also support local charities, with net proceeds to go to Shanti and the LGBT Center in San Francisco. According to Healy, SF Tsunami has raised more than $40,000 for charities in the past.
Team organizers are still in need of volunteers for many functions, including serving poolside as timers and staffing information desks. People interested in volunteering should send an email message to email@example.com.
Competition is scheduled from 9 am to 5 PM each day. More information, and results and stats after the event, are available at www.igla2003.org.