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Elegy for a beloved swimmer: Rick Peterson (1951—2022)

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Photo courtesy of Friends & Family of Rick Peterson
Photo courtesy of Friends & Family of Rick Peterson

Longtime Seattle resident Rick Peterson, 71, died on August 15. An avid swimmer, Rick regularly reached his annual goal of 100 miles in Lake Washington. On his 85th mile of his swim this summer, with his orange swim buoy strapped to his waist, Rick most likely experienced a heart arrhythmia, causing him to lose consciousness and later asphyxiate, according to a medical exam.

Rick's passing is mourned by his life partner of 21 years, Thomas DeVera, his family, and his large community of friends, including the international swimming community.

Born in Seattle, Rick started swimming competitively in both Bellingham and Seattle from the age of 10, sometimes doing three workouts a day. Rick was a champion swimmer for Sehome High School, and swam for Washington State University on a NCAA Division I scholarship.

Rick moved to San Francisco after graduation in 1973. He came out, and enjoyed young adulthood in what he called "an epicenter of emerging Gay liberation." By the early '80s, Rick was back in the Northwest, living in Seattle, when he learned about a Queen Anne pool lap-swim group who put on "Gay Swim Night." Through this group, Rick rediscovered his love for swimming, and made new fitness-oriented friends.

Among them was Dana Cox, who had been the sole swimmer in a contingent of 35 Seattle athletes at the inaugural Gay Games in San Francisco in 1982. Having brought home three gold medals, and jubilant at having been part of a groundswell of LGBTQ+ athletics, Dana urged Rick to participate in Gay Games II in 1986. Rick and Dana, along with others, began to dream of a Seattle Gay swim team that would train for the upcoming games. In 1984, they formed the Emerald City Orca Swim Club (later renamed the Orca Swim Club), with Allison Beezer and Rick as co-captains.

Excitement for the Gay Games II extended well beyond the swimming community. Rick would later write that "a real movement was beginning — a whole new form of 'gay liberation' centered on the health, fitness, and camaraderie unique to participatory sport." Rick and leaders of other emerging Gay sports teams began meeting. Dana recalls Rick's intelligence, diplomacy, and masterful team-building skills, noting that Rick ran an Orcas Island retreat to refine their vision and mission.

Photo courtesy of Friends & Family of Rick Peterson  

Their efforts resulted in an umbrella LGBTQ+ sports organization: in 1986, Rick co-founded Team Seattle, which would send 153 athletes to compete in 17 sports at Gay Games II in San Francisco. That year, Rick also helped start International Gay and Lesbian Aquatics (IGLA).

Rick worked to obtain the necessities for the Orca Swim Club: coaching, pool space, and competition in United States Master's Swimming (USMS) meets. But in the 1980s, homophobia was everywhere. In 1987, when the Orcas approached the regional USMS body, the Pacific Northwest Association of Masters Swimmers (PNA), for meet sanctioning, they were initially rebuffed with hostility. Some in the PNA said a Gay swim team would taint its reputation, and would bring infectious disease to the pools.

In response, Rick led a three-month advocacy effort, bringing together city and state representatives and the president of USMS for negotiations. The late state Sen. Cal Anderson, the first openly Gay member of the Washington state legislature, lent instrumental support.

The effort succeeded: the PNA capitulated, giving the Orca Swim Club the ability to host official meets at which swimmers' performances, rankings, and records could be recognized by USMS and World Masters organizations. The Orca Swim Club would also become one of the most popular USMS swim-meet hosts in Western Washington.

"Stroke by stroke, we began changing the swimming world in our little neck of the woods," Rick remarked.

By 1989, the Gay Games had grown significantly; the Federation of Gay Games (FGG) was formed that year, with Rick serving as inaugural co-president. He said to the Seattle Times, "There's been a history of homophobia in the sports world, and a lot of people who've been identified as gay have never felt that sports were part of what their culture offered them... the Gay Games makes a giant statement that we are athletic and we like to compete, too." Whereas the Gay Games II in San Francisco in 1986 had 3,500 total participants, the 1990 Gay Games III in Vancouver, BC, had 7,400 from 29 nations, in 30 sports.

In 1993, Rick helped lobby the US Department of Health and Human Services to allow HIV-positive athletes to enter the US to participate in the 1994 Gay Games IV in New York City, in which more than 10,000 athletes from 41 countries competed.

Rick also advocated for Gay rights outside of organized sport. When the anti-Gay Initiative 490 happened in 1986, Rick and fellow Orca swimmer Rene Oldrich swam across Lake Washington to raise awareness and funds to help fight it.

Rick knew how to make meets fun, as well. With the Orca Swim Club, he introduced the Pink Flamingo Relay, a way to end each meet with a noncompetitive fun event to, as he said, "make it gay." Since then, the Pink Flamingo Relay has become an established and entertaining hallmark of both Gay Games and IGLA aquatics competitions internationally, with participating teams performing celebratory, joyous, and often comedic routines in the pool with music, costumes, and choreography.

Rick was warm and encouraging to swimmers of all abilities. He said, "For me, the competition represents only 10 percent of my interest. The rest is being part of the team." Rick also modeled the joy and benefits of swimming throughout one's life to all and deeply loved the beauty of swimming in the open water.

Photo courtesy of Friends & Family of Rick Peterson  

The swimming community will greatly miss Rick, and we extend our deepest condolences to his family and loved ones.