Seattle's Orca swim team - 30 years of LGBT community spirit
by James Whitely -
SGN Staff Writer
Earlier this month, Seattle's very own LGBT swim team, the Orcas, participated in 'Swim for Life,' a fundraiser for the National Bone Marrow Registry. SGN spoke with Orca Swim Team Co-Captain Ryan Robertson and Rick Peterson, a founding member of the team, about the fundraiser and the Orcas' nearly three-decade history.
In the 1980s, Peterson recalled, 'it was exciting to realize that people did not expect Gays to be involved in sports [and] to surprise them, and it was even more exciting that some of them were exceedingly good and set records. I myself was national champion in the men's 50-meter freestyle in 1992.'
The Orcas are proud of their history. They know it well and they understand its relevance, and it's probably not a stretch to say that the pride this knowledge brings has helped lead them to their many victories. The Orcas were pioneers in the international Gay and Lesbian sports movement, which Peterson says is just one part of the emancipation of sports culture. It is this history, the team's many victories, and their continued role in fundraising that makes this 28-year-old swim club as great as they ever were.
SWIMMING FOR LIFE
On Wednesday, August 15, the Orcas gathered at 6:30 a.m. on the shore of Lake Washington for the 2.4-mile Swim for Life event hosted by the Puget Sound Blood Center.
'Being part of an event like this, swimming with fellow athletes working toward a common goal, creates an incredible energy,' said Robertson.
'This year we had three teams participate in the event,' Robertson told SGN. 'And again this year the same group from three years ago was ranked fifth amongst teams for amount raised for the event.'
The fundraiser brought out a total of 80 teams and raised $62,000 to fund the National Bone Marrow Registry.
'Everyone had an amazing time,' said Robertson. 'Next year I will try to get even more Orca members involved.'
The Orcas formed in 1984, which makes them one of the oldest Gay teams in any sport in the nation.
'There was definitely controversy,' Peterson told SGN of the team's beginning.
Peterson was part of the team's original lineup and has been swimming with them ever since. His proactive role on the team helped the Orcas get sanctioning in the '80s and led him to become one of the first co-presidents of the Federation of Gay Games.
'The Orca Swim Club has historically played a key leadership role in the global Gay and Lesbian sports movement,' Peterson told SGN. This role, he said, is 'probably disproportionate to the organization's size, which is really kind of neat.'
'Deep down inside we all know what we're talking about here is AIDS.'
Peterson remembers this comment well when in 1987, he, alongside other Orcas, petitioned the Pacific Northwest Association of Masters Swimmers to sanction their swim meets. It was a battle for equality.
'Without sanctioning you can't rent pools & you can't set records,' said Peterson.
Peterson said that the resistance largely came from the top, not the swimmers on the other teams.
'What if the KKK were to ask us to sanction a meet?' was another statement Peterson remembers hearing at an association board meeting.
'Equating us to a hate group like that is just remarkable,' said Peterson. 'What was normally a simple process became a three-month battle.'
That battle was finally won when Cal Anderson, Washington's first openly Gay state legislator, intervened. More than 100 people competed in the Orcas' first sanctioned swim meet.
'We helped introduce a lot of firsts for LGBT sports,' said Peterson, including the first LGBT dive, water polo, and synchronized swimming teams. 'Seattle has been a real catalyst for growing more opportunities in the aquatics area, but also in a lot of other team sports too.'
CONTINUING THE TRADITION
Today, Orca swim meets are some of the most highly attended in Western Washington. The Pink Flamingo Relay, one of their signature events, is now emulated by LGBT swim teams worldwide.
In their own way, the Orcas were pioneering a fight to push forward Gay rights in an oppressive environment. Many today still see sports as kind of a last bastion of homophobia.
'I feel like sports in general are still homophobic, in the sense that not a lot of people are out,' said Megan Rapinoe, a Seattle Sounders Women player, in an interview with OUT magazine, in which she came out shortly before her participation in the 2012 Olympics. 'In female sports, if you're Gay, most likely your team knows it pretty quickly. It's very open and widely supported. For males, it's not that way at all. It's sad.'
Although the Orcas have some world-class swimmers, team membership has always been open to everyone - swimmers of all ages, gender identities, sexual orientations, and skill levels.
'The team openly welcomes swimmers of all abilities. There's a lane for every speed,' Peterson told SGN. 'Not everybody competes - some just swim for recreation.'
'We're open to men and women, and historically we've had a good representation of all those demographics,' said Peterson. 'If you're friendly to the LGBT community and you like to swim, you have a place at the Orca Swim Club.'
If you're interested in joining the Orcas, check out www.orcaswimteam.org.
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