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The Outfield: Giving West Point a 'Tri'
The Outfield: Giving West Point a 'Tri'
by Dan Woog - SGN Contributing Writer

What's next for a 45-year-old, 280-pound Gay man with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and a sedentary lifestyle?

If you're Lou Tharp, you turn into a swimming fanatic and lose nearly 100 pounds. And then you become a swim coach who transforms a lackluster triathlete team into a national contender.

And where do you do it? At West Point.

It wasn't easy for Tharp - a successful businessman and community activist - to take his first plunge into the pool. But his desire to "not grow old feeling the way I did" overpowered his hesitation. In 1996, with the help of a medical team and Terry Laughlin (founder of the Total Immersion swimming program), Tharp dove into his new passion. Within six months, he was winning local and regional meets. By 1998, he was a World Masters bronze medalist.

He joined a Gay team in New York and, he says, "accepted a new identity for myself. All of a sudden I was a fit, active competitor. I got up at 5:30 every morning, to get in a 90-minute workout. My forward momentum perpetuated itself."

But New York City pools are crowded and expensive. Eventually, Tharp discovered a pool at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., 35 miles from his home. It was seldom open to the public, and the environment was not particularly welcoming, but the head of the West Point physical education department liked Tharp's spirit and gave him passes to the pool.

"I was an outsider, but I got to know the academy culture," Tharp says. "Everyone had a great work ethic and was highly respectful." He shared the pool with cadets, many of whom "swam very poorly." One was so bad that Tharp abruptly stopped and said, "You're driving me crazy." Tharp showed him some basic techniques, and he immediately improved. He was like most cadets, Tharp says, "a sponge. They're driven to excel, especially when they're around people with expertise."

The cadet brought a friend to the pool, who soon invited Tharp to attend his triathlon team practice. Tharp gave them a swimming workout, and members asked Tharp to help on a regular basis. In 2005, he was hired as a part-time coach.

Within two years, the team placed fifth in a national meet, just five points from first. Tharp had propelled the Army squad to national prominence - and he did it as an openly Gay man.

When he was first asked to coach, he had agreed - on the stipulation that he could be completely out. "I won't put up with anything less than complete acceptance," he told the officers, who replied that they didn't care about his sexuality.

Tharp's coming-out process to his athletes was similarly upfront and natural. Describing a swimming technique, he likened it to a baseball swing. "Now you might think a Gay man doesn't know anything about baseball...," he told them. And "that was it," he recalls now. "No one said anything. It wasn't a big deal."

He took his partner, Jim, to a team party. "West Point is a difficult school to get into," Tharp says. "Cadets have to be adaptable, intelligent, and aware of their surroundings. Every cadet there made it a point to talk to Jim - and really get to know him. Cadets are truly interested in meeting new people and asking questions about the world. That really blew us away."

Institutionally, Tharp knows, West Point is "a very antiGay organization." But, he says, "the rank and file is way ahead of the senior officers."

His experience is light-years away from 1972, when he served in the Army. "Top to bottom, there was no respect for Gay soldiers," he says. "There's a huge change today. I know West Point is like an Ivy League school, but it gives me great hope that 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' will die of inertia throughout the military."

Tharp points to the day Soulforce - a GLBT organization that works against religious and political oppression, and sponsors educational programs for college students - was refused admittance by West Point's commandant. A group of cadets collected money on campus and gave it to Soulforce. "The team told me about it. They were matter-of-fact, but proud."

In conversations with cadets and officers, Gay issues often arise. "They're all very open to viewpoints other than what they've been exposed to all their life," Tharp says. "Most people mimic what they've heard from religious, political, and military leaders. It's not surprising people have antiGay feelings. But when they talk to a Gay person, they hear a different point of view. And then they start to question whether those leaders are right."

Tharp clearly respects the cadets and many officers whom he's met at West Point. In turn, he appreciates the respect he has been shown. "If you don't respect other people, you can't respect yourself," he points out. "And we can't expect the military to move forward if they don't accept and respect Gay people."

Lou Tharp's new book, Overachiever's Diary, chronicles the swimming training regimen of the West Point triathlon team. For information, visit www.overachieversdiary.com.

Dan Woog is a journalist, educator, soccer coach, Gay activist, and author of the "Jocks" series of books on Gay male athletes. Visit his website at www.danwoog.com. He can be reached care of this publication or at OutField@qsyndicate.com.
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