The Gay Games brings together athletes of all shapes and sizes, of all races and religions, of all experience levels. There's the extremely high level of competitive basketball played by the San Francisco Rock Dogs to the leisurely "sport" of bridge. Gay Games VIII, held July 31Aug. 7, brought more than 9,500 participants from 65 countries to Cologne, Germany, for the quadrennial sports and cultural extravaganza. Windy City Times reporter Ross Forman looks back at the Games through the eyes, ears, emotions and more of those who battled of gold, silver and bronze, as well as personal pride and accomplishment. About 125 participants went to Cologne from the Chicago areaand here are the stories of some of them.
( See more stories next week. )
Joee Arteaga and his partner were ready to leave their hotel after participating in Gay Games VIII when the concierge at the Marriott in Cologne, Germany, stopped Arteaga.
"Hey, tattoo man," said the concierge, who commented that Arteaga was the nicest athlete he had met during the seven-day sports and cultural extravaganza, particularly since Arteaga always had a friendly, "Good morning" or "Good night" for everyone.
The concierge said he had a gift for Arteagaand took him to his office, where most of the hotel staff was waiting. They presented Arteaga with a giant Gay Games flag that flew outside the hotel the entire week of the Games.
" [ The flag ] was wet, but it was wonderful. I got choked up," Arteaga said. "These people who didn't know me honored me in a way I will never forget. I just remember thinking that I did everything I came for. I came for gold; I came to make friends; and I came to represent Chicago and America in the best way possibleand I believe I did. I hugged and kissed them all goodbye and wiped away many tears."
For Arteaga, and most of the other 9,500 Gay Games participants, the event was a life-changing experience that will be remembered long after the flame in Cologne is extinguished, long after the medals have been handed out, long after the tiring flights back to American soil.
"I am Hispanic, Italian and gaythree things that, at times, do not mix culturally," said Arteaga, 36. "My whole life I have been told what a man is and that gay was not an option for me. So I rebelled, never wanting to fit in. I was always too gay to be straight and too straight to be gay. I was young and discovered the Gay Games. I competed, had a great time, but never won. I competed again in Chicago, [ and ] one of my events was cancelled and I lost in softball. I went to Cologne with my husband of 16 yearsand I won a gold medal in hammer throwing; I also made 38 new Facebook friends and watched my husband win gold in bowling.
"I, like everyone I know, wants to be proud and have people be proud of them. Gays don't have that a lot in their lives. The Gay Games makes us 'fitting in' possible. I started my trip with one goal in mind: GOLD. I got so much more. Words can't even truly tell how I feel. Thank you, Gay Games."
Arteaga, a Chicago paramedic, also participated in the shot put and discuss.
"The Games were great," he said. "I love the whole international feel to it. I like competing against the world.
"I could not believe I won [ the gold ] . I was told I was the first North American ever to win a sport [ traditionally dominated by ] Eastern European [ countries ] at the Gay Games. Actually I was the first non-Eastern European."
And, ironically, he had only previously seen his sport on YouTubeit was not offered at the Chicago Games in 2006 due to lack of interest.
"I twisted my ankle and was carried off the field only to be told, 'You won, you won, American won,'" Arteaga said. "We had great competition from the Eastern European nations.
"I twisted my ankle competing, so I hobbled to the podium, kissed [ the ] third-place [ finisher from ] Mexico, kissed [ the ] second-place [ finisher from ] France and jumped on the first-place [ platform ] . I received my gold and my earring caught [ the ] medal; [ so ] I removed the earring, kissed the official and stood up. As I stood up, I heard the roar of the Americans and athletes all present. I guess it hurt a little. My whole life it was wrong to be gay. On that podium, it was not wrong. I asked [ the finalists from ] Mexico and France to join me, up top on [ the ] first-place [ platform ] and we hugged for what seemed to be an eternity. Pictures flashed [ and ] people cheered. I was so proud to be an American, a Chicagoan and to be a Hispanic gay male."
Karen K. Dixon signed up for powerlifting in Cologne three weeks before the Games at the same time her trainer insisted that she start using heavier weights in her workouts.
Ultimately, she achieved a personal best in the deadlift and cleared 203 pounds, despite a broken toeand she won the gold medal.
"Although nothing could, or will ever, compare to Chicago in 2006, the 2010 Gay Games in Cologne were fantastic," said Dixon, 45, who now lives in Washington, D.C.
"I could barely walk the day [ after winning the gold ] and it had nothing to do with my feet.
"I'm glad the other 45-year-old women stayed home. After I finished shaking hands with the officials, a Cologne volunteer walked up and said, 'Congratulations! You have also won the first spot in our Random Drug Test [ program ] .' My response [ was ] : 'Did you see my lifts? If I'm using steroids, they're not working very well.'"
Dixon, in her first Games as an athlete ( as opposed to helping in Chicago ) , also won a silver medal in golf.
"I love [ golf ] ," she said. "It's physical, mental and social [ sport ] . It turns out all golfers share a universal language after bad shots."
Cologne, she said, "was [ a ] phenomenal experience and reminded me of how much I miss competing. I encourage everyone to participate in 2014."
Mark Agulnik won the bronze medal in the men's 3,000-meter steeplechase. Judy Rice represented Chicago with pride, winning gold in powerlifting. Stephen McConnell won two silver and a bronze medal in bridge.
Israel Wright traveled to Germany as part of the delegates from the Federation of Gay Games' Board of Directors, and also as a volunteer photographer.
"The entire time in Cologne was truly amazing. It was great to see a city transformed," Wright said. "I was lucky enough to distribute the medals to the first-ever Gay Games Cheer competition. Even though it rained, the participants persevered and a winner, San Francisco, was determined to be the gold medal winner.
"The medal distribution was [ held ] in one of the Gay Games villages. [ There were ] lots of folks dropping in to see the performances. It was a great time with all of the folks there."
Wright, 56, volunteered his photographic skills in 2006 to the Chicago Games.
"Transportation was easier in Cologne [ than in Chicago, ] " Wright said. "The spirit of the Games really creates an environment where all elements outside, that is, before and afterward, really do not matter.
"I am really looking forward to attending the Games in Cleveland in 2014.
Lawrence Manuel competed in the triathlon and 10K road race and, though he didn't medal, he had, "a truly great time."
Aside from the sport competitions, he also made "significant personal connections." Such as a wrestler at the Rainbow Run who lives in a small town outside of Stuttgart, Germany. The German shared with Manuel, with tearful eyes, "how very important it was for him to be there as a gay athlete," Manuel said. Then there were Italian basketball players who have never been in the U.S., but asked Manuel extensively about Chicago.
Manuel, 46, is the senior project director for Socratic Technologiesand has competed in two Games. He said the Cologne Games were, "well-organized, friendly and [ with ] helpful volunteers, nice venues in a city with great sightseeing."
Manuel said his most memorable Cologne moment was the swimming portion of the triathlon at Fuehlinger.
He said the Cologne Games were "one of the best" major sporting events for him, along with Escape from Alcatraz and winning a medal at EuroPride 2009.
"I will do it again and participate in other international gay sporting events," Manuel said.
Joy Lesnick and her partner, Polly Hayes, had "an amazing time" at the Games, said Lesnick, whose volleyball team finished fourth in the BB division of women's indoor action, losing to a team from France in the battle for the bronze medal.
Hayes, meanwhile, finished sixth in her age-group in the 5K road race, "which was held on a beautiful course in the woods surrounding the athletic complex," Lesnick said.
"It was our first Gay Games experience, and we had no idea how much fun it would be. The people we met from all over the world were fantastic; the social events were a blast; and the city of Cologne was a wonderful host."
Ivette Garcia, 24, is a two-time Gay Games participant ( Chicago, Cologne ) who played in the competitive soccer division in Germany.
"The Cologne Games as a whole [ were ] a great experience," said Garcia, who lives on the North Side. "Our team did not win any medals. I consider our team as the 'almost team' because we definitely had it to win, but due to bad [ officiating ] and bad luck, we didn't make it.
"My most memorable Cologne moments were [ in ] the Closing Ceremony; I had so much fun and enjoyed every moment of it. Also being able to view the amazing structure the Dom, the tallest building of Cologne."
Garcia was one of two female soccer players from Chicago who were scholarship winners to attend.
"The Cologne Games [ were different ] from the Chicago Games," Garcia said. " [ In ] Chicago, there was better first-aide, [ more ] water and better [ officiating. ]
"I had a great time getting to meet people from different countries. This was a life-lasting experience, just how I thought it would be. I would do this again in a heartbeat. I would like to thank our sponsor, Mona and Evett Cardona, for making this possible and for their support."
Adam Parker was a two-time swimming medalist in Cologne, winning gold in the 800-meter freestyle ( 30-34 age group ) and a bronze medal in the 4x200-meter freestyle relay. His relay team included Scot Phinney, Luis Balaguer and Micheal Thiry.
"There was a great venue [ for swimming ] in Cologne," Parker said. "The pool was 50-meters and outdoors, a brand new facility. The people in the city were so welcoming and accommodating."
Parker, 34, a massage therapist, is a two-time Games competitor.
His Cologne highlight was simple: "Standing on the podium with my teammates."
See more Chicago results next week. If you competed and have not spoken with reporter Ross Forman, please e-mail him at Rossco814@aol.com .