Other Swim Groups
by Jim Provenzano
Coming down from the high of Gay Games VI, San Francisco Tsunami Polo players celebrated in a variety of ways, by taking a break, extending their Australian vacations, or getting back to the pool.
With a team in both A and B divisions, and a women's team, Tsunami players offered a wide range of talent. The mixed A team and the women's team both won bronze, with the B team came in seventh out of fifteen squads.
"Being able to play where the Olympics had been held was excellent," said Steven Aronowitz. "The level of play was so much higher than we've seen. Everyone played their best and improved throughout the tournament. As a gay athlete, it was empowering to see how well these teams played together."
Aronowitz started with Tsunami a year and a half ago, and swam at Placer High School in Auburn. He'd always been interested in polo, which other swimmers he knew had played.
When he swam with Tsunami, "I started playing and never looked back." He said. "It's more exhausting when you play for so long, constantly treading water. But it's a lot more motivating than lane swimming."
For cross-training, he runs and swims, "a lot, about eight times a week. If you don't, you're exhausted in a game."
The term "polo" is a slight misnomer, with positions more akin to basketball, with one center. "Everyone else is like a horseshoe around the outside," Aronowitz explained. "Usually the same people end up as guard. It depends on how fast people move The only set position is called the 'hole-set,'" a term that receives an expected amount of ribald banter.
While other American Democrats were dismayed by hearing of some November election results on the other side of the planet, Aronowitz, who worked for the Steve Westly for State Comptroller. Campaign, was happy with his candidate's success. "Our race was close. We were checking the web all the time."
Swimming in chlorinated pools can be a bit irritating for full-time swimmers, but they were relieved by the modern update in Sydney pools, with ozone-chlorinated water.
"They have all these wonderful public pools, like nothing we have here," said E.J. Bernacki, who learned that Sydney public school children takes ocean safety classes, learning about tides and lifesaving.
Bernacki started playing in March, and is now Secretary of the team's board. His B squad's first game was with West Hollywood's top-ranked A team.
"We got mauled our first day in the water," he laughed. "The only teams that beat us were the WH2O and Montreal (who later won gold and silver, respectively)."
Since water polo games were held at night, after swimming events, players enjoyed their free days, but endured a lot of late nights getting back to their hotels. Bernacki got to see other events by day, including track and field, volleyball and tennis. "There was so much going on."
With a background in swimming, gymnastics and tennis in his Connecticut home, Bernacki had never been in a team sport. Since joining Tsunami he said, "I've had a ball. It's a great group of guys. That's what keeps people coming back."
Despite the friendly aspect, competition can get rough under water.
"I was definitely surprised when people hold you down, grab your arm and your suit," said Bernacki. "There's a lot that goes on."
Initially seeing it as an interesting way to get out of PE class, Wright had been swimming, "since I was knee-high," he said.
He played varsity through high school. While living overseas through college, he stopped playing, then returned to polo after returning to Southern California, where he played for West Hollywood's team, and helped them win the gold in 1991 at the International Gay & Lesbian Aquatics (IGLA) Long Beach tournament.
When he moved to San Francisco in 1998, water polo was a mere idea hatched by Wright, Jim Ruggiero, and a growing group of West Coasters with some experience.
Their efforts at IGLA '99 led to the goal of getting even stronger, and competing in Sydney. Players took turns coaching on Saturday mornings and recruiting swimmers.
Their team-building outside the pool includes social events like camping trips at the Russian River, and their successful Splish fundraisers.
Growing two teams, "exceeded our wildest expectations," said Wright. He's still thrilled by having competed. "It was amazing," he said. "My friends say my eyes just light up just talking about it. I had never fully appreciated fully what the experience was."
LADIES OF THE LAKE
"When we had the most women's games, I sat out (of A team games)," she said. "It worked out that I didn't have to play more than three games in one day."
Born in Phoenix, AZ, she played high school softball and volleyball, and a lot of soccer. She appreciates a team environment. "That's why swimmers end up playing water polo," she said. "The game element is a lot of fun. You have to be a good swimmer. A lot of the game happens in fast breaks."
Burkhart started in college at Claremont-McKenna, near Riverside, CA on the club team for three years, then varsity as a senior. She also plays on a women's team in Oakland, which includes a few National Team players and Cal State grads. Her three years with Tsunami were her first time playing competitively with men, outside of some scrimmages.
"It's not necessarily rougher," she said, "but you get against a big guy, and the playing is different."
Burkhart didn't have expectations playing in Sydney, but enjoyed meeting "so many people from all over, and seeing them through the week. We met women on other teams, and went out to dinner and dancing."
"The team's grown and improved a lot," she said. "The people on it are fantastic. It's become an integral part of my life."
Despite having been very out since the end of her college days -- "I came storming out of the closet," she said -- Burkhart has experienced some homophobia on other teams.
When a fellow teammate wrote in a Games scholarship about how he faced discrimination on other teams, Burkhart thought back about occasions where coaches said homophobic things.
"That stuff happens," she said. "The water polo community can be pretty homophobic. There have been lesbians on some women's team, and they have felt a need to be closeted."
She hopes the success of gay teams will have an influence. "It's a small community and a growing sport."
Being new to the sport, and having played on a new women's team, Virginia Alber-Glanstaetten complimented her athleticism with being out for thirteen years.
"I never did any sport that was exclusively gay," she said. "At first it was a total joke. But then it was love at first sight."
She swam competitively in Washington, DC and Massachusetts in school. She rowed in college, but stopped after a back injury. Bored with the repetition of lane swimming, she searched online for a San Francisco club, and found Tsunami.
For Alber-Glanstaetten, playing on a lesbian and gay team, "just adds a lot of fun. Ultimately, it also took a level of commitment to go, financially and physically. When you see gays coming from East Timor, where they're not recognized as a country or as a gay people, you know you're really lucky."
And although she still recalls being "socked in the throat" by a certain male opponent, she said that, "One great thing with playing with men is you don't have the catty politics of women's teams."
After competing at the Games, the team went to Byron Bay and enjoyed some ocean water for a change.
"It was great to spend time outside the pool with people who shared an intense competition," said Aronowitz. "There's a lot of camaraderie. Everyone has a lot of respect for each other."
Despite claiming he would relax, after a vacation to the Barrier Reef, Wright was back at Mills College, playing polo. "You miss being in the water."
Jim Ruggiero, one of Tsunami's players with several years of experience, took off on a rafting adventure in Tasmania, and traveled in Australia and New Zealand for a month.
After the Games, Todd Aghazadeh stayed in Australia for three weeks, "Mostly in Sydney with friends from high school," he said.
He was happy to relax down under. "After two games a day, it's kind of exhausting."
Although it was his first Games as a polo player, Aghazadeh played in high school in Burbank. He also competed at the last IGLA in Toronto, where Tsunami sent two teams.
"Every year has new player clinics," he said, allowing for the growth spurt of fresh talent. He mentioned the popularity of water polo on the West Coast, "which is why LA's team is so strong."
And they'll be the team to beat, once again, at Tsunami's August IGLA swim meet at Stanford University. The London team is coming, and France is forming a water polo club. The Sydney, Melbourne and Perth teams hope to compete, along with many Canadian and US teams, making it the swimming and water polo event of 2003, with possibly more GLBT aquatics competitors than in Sydney.