by Anthony Greer -
SGN Contributing Writer
With the sun slowly creeping back into the Seattle skyline, many people find themselves preparing for swimsuit season. The Orcas, however, are in their swimming attire all year long.
In 1983, Seattle swimmer Dana Cox informed former WSU varsity swimmer Rick Peterson about the Gay Games and suggested the start of an 'informal Gay swim night' at Seattle's Queen Anne Pool. A year later, the Emerald City Orca Swim Club was formed, and Peterson was elected captain. Since then, the Orcas have grown to a roster of roughly 200 men and women, both Gay and straight, young and old, fast and slow.
'I think that swimming is a good sport whatever your level is. It's not hard on your joints like running, basketball, or other sports,' Jason Stone, the Orca's webmaster, said.
Some members are part-time swimmers just looking to stay healthy and fit, but some of the more diehard Orcas have their eyes fixed on the International Gay and Lesbian Aquatics (IGLA) Championships held in Hawaii in July. Stone plans on being one of them.
'In 2006, I went to the Gay Games in Chicago, and I was the only athlete from Montana. I had an amazing time and wanted to stay a part of it,' Stone said, 'I knew that I wanted to become an Orca before I moved to Seattle.'
Matt Lind has been an Orca and attending IGLA championships since 1989. He has participated in the Gay Games, as well.
'I've been a swimmer all of my life, so I needed to find a swim team - and a Gay swim team is just a perfect fit.' Lind said. 'When I first started, I didn't know a lot of people.' Since joining the Orcas, he said that he's met a lot of diverse people and made a lot of friends. Being a part of the Orca team has helped him as well as many of the other team members socialize more with both the swimming community and the Gay community.
'It's a social group, too,' Lind emphasized. 'We do a potluck once a month and dinner once a week on Fridays.'
'We have a 'bring a friend to swim' night once a month, and then usually invade the Lobby Bar for an after-swim practice party,' Stone said, 'As a team, we try and support local businesses that support us.'
'At least as a community, if not as a team,' Lind added.
The Orca swim team will also be selling Jell-O shots at the Eagle on April 30 as part of a fundraiser to get their teammates to Hawaii for the championships.
The Orcas have weekly practices on Sundays, Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Attending these practices are not required and there are several levels of memberships that are sure to fit everyone's schedules and swimming needs.
'A lot of people enjoy swimming but may not identify themselves as a swimmer, so we have punch passes where people just drop in,' Stone explained. These passes are for whatever fits their schedule and their level of fitness.
The punch passes are $60 and allow you to swim with the Orcas for 10 practices. Annual passes are $500 and quarterly passes are $145. For first-timers who aren't sure if the Orca swim team is a good fit for them, there is also a three-day pass. In order to become an Orca, you also have to join the U.S. Mastering Swimming (USMS) for insurance, which is $35 a year. According to the Orcas, the experience is worth every penny.
The practices take place at Seattle University, where they're coached by SU swimmers.
'We're fortunate to have a really good relationship with them. We pay money for them so that they can support their swim team. It's a great collaborative effort,' Stone said. 'This last swim meet, they provided volunteer support for us. That kind of support from them is invaluable.'
The practice pools have six lanes and are all based on a swimmers' skill levels. The beginning swimmers take lanes one and two, while some of the more seasoned Orcas splash through lanes five and six. There are generally somewhere between 20 and 30 people present during the practices, which tend to last around 75 minutes. The first 10-15 minutes are for announcements and warm-ups. Afterwards, the SU coach will choose a swim style and distance for the Orcas to participate in. The Orcas also have the option of focusing on other styles and distances if they'd like.
'You get a better workout when you work out with a team,' Stone said. He added that 'swimming is really gratifying in that a little tweak in your technique will go a long way with how fast and efficient you are.'
Those 'little tweaks' can sometimes mean all the difference when it comes to championship meets. Just ask Orca member Lisa Dahl who holds a world record with IGLA.
While the Orca swim team is flourishing now, it's been a long and trying journey for some of its members to earn the right to be both Gay and swim competitively. The Orca team was formed during the beginning stages of the HIV crisis, and thus had to work their way to acceptance.
'There was a pretty significant pushback from the swimming community for allowing Gays to swim with them,' Stone explained. But since then, 'we've developed a lot of connections with the [swimming] community.'
Peterson, the Orca's first captain, was unavailable for an interview, but still told his story in a timeline of events starting from the birth of the Orcas to today. He revealed that he and his teammates participated in a plethora of fundraisers and events to raise awareness and gain equal rights for Gay swimmers.
In 1986, he and fellow Orca Rene Oldrich swam across Lake Washington to fight the anti-Gay-rights Initiative 490 in King County. The following year, when the Orcas had difficulty getting USMS sanctioning, they managed to successfully get several political leaders - including Washington's first openly Gay state legislator, Representative Cal Anderson - to rally behind them and got the Pacific Northwest Aquatics (PNA) to sanction them.
In 1994, Peterson (who was the Federation of Gay Games co-president by then) met with the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala in Washington, D.C., to successfully lift a U.S. ban preventing HIV-positive athletes from entering the United States to participate in the Gay Games III in New York City. The water in the pool has been much smoother ever since.
While the Orcas continue to train for the championships in IGLA, or even just try to make it to the other end of the pool, they support one another and work together to become more disciplined swimmers and create stronger bonds in and out of their swim lanes. They are also gearing up for pride in June, which occurs just a week before several of them compete in Hawaii.
Stone and Lind are excited for both events. Stone said, while laughing, that what makes the Orcas unique is that 'we're the only ones in the Pride parade that wear Speedos for a legitimate reason.' He also hinted that since the championships are held in Hawaii immediately after Seattle Pride, that will be incorporated in their float.
'We would also like to thank the Lobby Bar for their support of the Orca swim team,' Stone concluded.
If you're interested in joining the Orca swim team, please visit their website at www.orcaswimteam.org.
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