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  WINDY CITY TIMES

Chicagoans shine at Cologne Gay Games
Extended for the Online Edition of Windy City Times
by Ross Forman
2010-08-25

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Richard Sypniewski traveled to Cologne to compete in the triathlon, marking his second Games appearance ( Chicago, 2006 ) .

"The Games were great and Cologne was a fantastic host," Sypniewski said. "The people of Cologne were very welcoming and the compactness of the city made it very easy to get to the events. The main area [ of Cologne ] included a campus of facilities housing swimming, diving, track & field, [ and more ] . The global participation was great with athletes from Australia, Thailand, Africa, South America, and, of course, Europe and the U.S.

"I did not medal, however, [ I ] had my best swim time ever and it was rewarding to athletes in their 60s who have been coming to the Games again crossing the finish line to the roar and excitement of the athletes and spectators.

Sypniewski, 41, who lives in Chicago's Andersonville neighborhood, is the managing director and CFO for Sagin, LLC.

"As with every Gay Games, the memories are with the people you meet from all around the world with which we share a common bond," Sypniewski said. "We come there to compete for our personal bests, but we also share the bond of competing in our everyday lives for equality.

"The Games ranks very high in my priorities to keep attending because it demonstrates the ability to set goals and achieve them, and [ the Games ] also bring us together for fun and achievement. People only need to participate to experience and see what a great feeling the Gay Games creates."

So which was better, Chicago or Cologne?

Well, that's sort of a loaded question for a Chicago resident.

"I am biased being a Chicago native, but [ I ] would definitely say Chicago was significantly better from an organization and coordination of the Opening and Closing Ceremonies, not to mention all of the events," Sypniewski said. "I also would say it is unfair to compare each [ Games ] city because they all have their strengths and weaknesses. Cologne was better because of the city size compared to Chicago, which made it easier to get around, and [ Cologne ] had a greater global attendance. I think the recession put a damper on attendance and the way Cologne [ organizers ] may have approached the spending [ for ] the event.

"I strongly encourage people to participate [ in the Gay Games, in ] whatever event they want, so they can experience the feeling of being part of something so great and global."

Such as the story Sypniewski tells when he was talking with a fellow male competitor in the triathlon.

"I asked if he competed in Chicago in 2006 and he told me that he would have liked to, however, at the time, the U.S. did not allow him into the country because he is HIV-Positive and the U.S. travel ban was not lifted until January, 2010.

"The more we come together as a community whether locally for events or globally in the Gay Games competition, we begin to learn more about ourselves and others in our community and how much we have yet to accomplish together."

Kevin Haight can add a silver medal in basketball to his sporting resume that already includes a championship at the 2005 Gay Bowl ( flag football ) in San Diego.

Haight, 38, is the vice president group sales manager for Petry Television, and a two-time Games competitor ( Chicago, 2006 ) .

"Marching into the stadium during the Opening Ceremony," was a highlight in Cologne, Haight said, "And also the presentation of the [ basketball ] medals."

Chicago or Cologne?

"It's so different traveling to another city. I actually was much more involved with the social activities in Cologne," he said.

Ryan Fournier had a "great time" in Cologne, despite an error of sorts in his swimming race.

"Sadly, I only registered for one event: the 50-meter breast stroke, and I had no idea that, at the end [ of the race ] , you had to touch the wall with both hands—and I was disqualified," Fournier said. "So, I flew [ more than ] 4,000 miles to get DQ'd, but I had an awesome time anyway."

Michael Thiry, competing in his first Gay Games, captured three bronze medals—two for solo swimming efforts and one for the 4x2000 freestyle relay, which feature Chicago Smelts' teammates Scot Phinney, Luis Balaguer and Adam Parker.

"I was so happy to be sharing that experience with my teammates and [ was very ] proud to be participating in the Games in general," Thiry said. "I wished that my boyfriend, Quinton, was there to share the experience with me, but [ I ] couldn't wait to call him after my events and tell him how we all did."

Thiry, 34, who lives in University Village, is the coordinator, fare media operations for the Chicago Transit Authority.

"The Games were a tremendously uplifting experience," Thiry said. "They were organized very well and the entire city was so welcoming. It was great to compete with other gay athletes and to be a part of the gay community doing something positive.

"I trained really hard for [ the Games ] for the past year, [ so ] winning the medals made all of the hard work really worthwhile," Thiry said. "The success I had at the Games makes me want to continue training just as hard for future events."

Thiry said the Games were, "an experience of a lifetime."

"To experience thousands of gay people coming together from all over the world to participate in their sport as well as supporting others competing was amazing," he said. "It was great to meet so many other people and hear their experiences. Sporting-wise, the swimming competition was run extremely well and the spirit of the competition was very friendly. People were very supportive of one another and happy to see others winning medals.

"This experience was so great that I cannot wait for the next Games in four years."

Dan Norton did not medal, but gained lifetime memories.

"I had a great time in Cologne," he said. "Kyle [ Chang ] did a good job keeping Team Chicago together, as we all wanted to represent Chicago in a positive way."

Frank J. Pieri captured bronze in bodybuilding in Cologne, yet it's two other Chicagoans who he wants to praise.

"I could not have been successful without my trainer, Ira Crawley, at the Fitness Formula Club on Halsted Street and my posing coach, Michelle Amore, who is at the FFC at Union Station," Pieri said. "I also could not have done it without the support of my partner, friends and family. A year of a strict diet and no alcohol was a long time to ask everyone in my life to support me in one way or another … but they did."

Pieri, 53, has a private psychiatry practice and was competing in his second Games; he ran the 10K race in Chicago in 2006.

" [ Cologne ] was a great, affirming experience," Pieri said. "I met lots of great people from all over the world.

"I never trained for, or competed in, bodybuilding before [ the Games ] . I began my training and diet regimen a year before the Games. It is very rewarding to have accomplished this on my first attempt."

Pieri's most memorable moment: "Having my name announced as a medal winner," he said. "It was hard to believe that I actually won the medal."

The Cologne Games—combined with the personal, non-sporting aspects of his German adventure—rank as one of the best experiences in Steve Boudreau's life.

And the Games brought out a level of competition that he never before had experienced.

Ultimately, the 39-year-old Boudreau, an independent marketing consultant who was competing in his first-ever Gay Games, won the gold medal for singles in men's social bowling.

He also competed in team and doubles bowling.

"It was a spectacular experience where the gay community throughout the world came together and celebrated our diversity," Boudreau said. "Throughout my time competing, I had the pleasure of meeting gay men from many other countries and formed some amazing bonds and friendships with people I would have never otherwise had the chance to meet. I am excited beyond belief to have been able to go all the way and take the gold."

Boudreau also had joy climbing up the bell tower at the K├Âlner Dom with his partner, Joee.

"My partner and my friends from Chicago and Michigan were there to celebrate my win and that made me exceptionally proud," Boudreau said. "And, I started to cry because I knew the gold medal in bowling was going to make my father so proud. What I didn't expect was that the people who I met and bowled with throughout the week were just as excited and proud of me. It was a magical moment."

Boudreau said the Opening and Closing Ceremonies in Chicago in 2006 were better than Cologne's, "but the culture in Cologne provided an amazing backdrop for the Games.

"I can't wait to do it again in Cleveland. I am definitely addicted to the Gay Games."

If Matthew Stuczynski has to write a term paper about "What I Did Over Summer Break," it definitely will include his journey to Germany for his second Gay Games, where he competed in sailing.

" [ The ] best [ part ] for me was the sense of sport, camaraderie and support as a competitor," said Stuczynski, 47, who teaches Spanish and German at New Trier High School in suburban Chicago. "I made [ friends ] with hosts and fellow sailors from throughout the world.

"My team of three was symbolic of the Games, in particular because the three of us, from three different countries, met for the first time in Cologne and quickly became a close and effective sailing crew; these two women/teammates will be friends for life.

"We took turns being skipper on the boat and the day that I was in charge tested my skills to the limit.

"We didn't win a medal, but I stretched myself to my personal best."

The five bowl together on Tuesdays at Waveland Bowling in the Windy City Athletic Association league—Pete Leal, Rob Chalupnik, Randy Israel, Ed Beach and Kent Jager. They took their balls to Germany for Gay Games VIII, except Jager, who opted for in-line speed skating, and he won a bronze medal.

Former Chicagoans Michael Bless and Michael Ooms also bowled in Cologne.

Ooms ultimately won gold for singles bowling.

"We were there for [ the ] Opening and Closing Ceremony, and everything in between," Leal said. "We had a great time exploring the city, eating and drinking at night."

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 Evette Cardona, for making this possible and for their support."

Tony Phillips played basketball in Cologne with the Seattle Furry Vengeance in the men's recreational division since there were no Chicago basketball teams participating. His team won the gold medal, defeating SOS in the championship game—and the SOS team featured several Chicago players, including Jeff Edmonds and Rob Smitherman.

Wessel van Kampen, who is the male co-president for GLISA, which produces the Outgames, competed in Cologne in his second Gay Games—his first since 2002 in Sydney.

van Kampen, 41, who lives in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, and is the principal manager at PricewaterhouseCoopers/Advisory in Amsterdam, competed in field hockey.

"I think [ the Gay Games ] was a good event," van Kampen said. "I was there together with my colleagues, so, besides all doing our sports, we were able to meet each other, meet with all kind of familiar and new sports representatives, promote our events in Vancouver and Wellington in 2011 and our World event in Antwerp in 2013. It also gave us the opportunity to meet with FGG Board members and discuss the future of our cooperation and the future of global LGBT events.

"I think we have seen a lot of the best practices from other events being implemented in Cologne and that is a good thing; we all build on each other's experiences to create the best event possible for our participants. Improvements are, of course, always possible, but I believe the team of Annette and Michael hosted a very good event."

van Kampen's team won the silver medal. In Sydney, he won gold.

"I was happy [ to win the silver ] , but also a tad disappointed to lose the gold to the Australian team again," van Kampen said. "We came close; our game was not as it could have been, but they beat us fair and, to be honest; they were the better team throughout the tournament."

van Kampen attended many other sports in Cologne, such as swimming, diving, soccer, track and field, squash, water polo and ball room dancing.

"Dancing is our favorite," event to watch, said van Kampen, who attended with his partner. "We don't participate, but the atmosphere in the dance hall is so good. The hosts make the audience go wild and stir up the dance couples to give it their utmost best. It is also one of the only sports that is really different, together with ice dancing, which really makes it special and a so much fun to visit.

"I think that the cooperation with FGG and the Cologne event organizers and GLISA was very good and shows that besides the differences in how our events are composed ( sports and culture for the Gay Games in comparison to sports, culture and human rights for the World Outgames ) , there are many ways we can and I think should cooperate. Creating one quadrennial event in 2018, based on the three mentioned components, is something that, I believe, ties in with what our community asks of us.

Jim Garrett captured a wrestling bronze medal for the 35-49 age division in the 90kilogram weight class.

"I am a lucky person because I was happy by just participating," said Garrett, 48, who lives in Oak Park, Ill. " [ The Cologne Games ] were very organized and professional for all of competitions as you [ could ] meet new friends and develop memories that will last a lifetime."

Garrett, a consultant in higher education, has now participated in three Gay Games. And his most memorable Cologne moment actually happened off the wrestling mat: "Going across the Rhine River and seeing the massive Cologne Cathdral or Kolner Dom while traveling on their KVB light rail transit system. Beautiful sight.

"I want to say 'Thank you' to Josh Watkins for ensuring an organized competition for this Gay Games and special thank you to Gene."

Partners Drew Jemilo and Tom Chiola had a "great time" running the 5K and 10K races, Chiola said. "We both had times that were better than we expected, although we did not win medals [ in either events ] . It was a beautiful, wooded course and the volunteers were so friendly and helpful. It was another great Gay Games experience."

Los Angeles-based Cyd Zeigler, the co-founder of Outsports.com, said the Cologne Games were "the best" Gay Games he has attended.

"It was incredibly well-organized; the city had a strong Gay Games presence and the sports and social events were everything you want them to be. My biggest complaint was that it had to end," Zeigler said. "The best-run event I saw was track & field. The venue was gorgeous and centrally located; the announcers kept the crowd informed and engaged throughout the event, and the competition was top-notch.

"The worst-run event was basketball. The venue was one of the furthest from the city center, which discouraged almost everyone from attending. And the officiating was the worst I can remember seeing at any level; it wasn't biased, it was simply incompetent.

"Still, the best [ basketball ] team won, and athletes I spoke to had a good time, despite the poor location and officiating."

There he was, seconds from getting the bronze medal with his Chicago Smelts teammates, and Luis Balaguer could only think about one thing: "Don't cry," he said.

Balaguer, 42, who lives in the Edgewater neighborhood, was competing in Cologne in his first Gay Games. He participated in eight swimming races, and he won the bronze in a team relay ( 4x200 freestyle ) .

"I had a few memorable moments [ in Cologne ] , such as one cab ride to the pool," Balaguer said. "The straight cab driver asked me if I was there for the Gay Games. He then asked me if I knew the age of the oldest athlete. He said his age was 92. He'd been listening to the news on the radio about the Games. The city was paying attention to the Games—straight, gay, young and old.

"The next [ memorable moment ] was watching the choruses perform in the city squares and watching the mix of people ( straight, gay, young, old, families, etc. ) stop to watch and cheer.

"Finally, a young straight [ massage therapist ] who I met was very inspired by our dedication to sports and physical health. He said we gave him hope."

Balaguer said competing in Cologne, "was a dream four years in the making."

Her luggage was a bit heavy heading home from Germany—from all the medals Cathy Seabaugh won at Gay Games VII. Just consider:

—Gold in the women's 45-49 ( age-division ) 100-meter and 200-meter run.

—Gold in the women's 4x100 ( ages 30-34 ) relay.

—Silver in the mixed 4x200 relay.

—Silver in the mixed 4x100 relay.

"This was my third Gay Games," Seabaugh said. "I wrestled in 1994 in New York, ran [ only ] one mixed relay in 2006 in Chicago [ since ] I was on staff so could not compete all week until the last day."

Seabaugh, 49, said one of her Cologne highlights was listening to Taylor Dayne's Opening Ceremony performance, as well as the all-women's party at end of week.

The Games, though, also had an embarrassing moment Seabaugh: the javelin throw, but she redeemed herself with a win in the 100-meter race the next day.

Roger Bashore had knee reconstruction surgery two years ago and hasn't really competed since. He also had knee surgery in February and pulled a quadriceps muscle two weeks before the Gay Games.

But Bashore still ran to glory in Germany.

He won gold in the 1,500-meter race, silver in the 800-meter and gold in the 13.1-mile half-marathon.

"Sporting-wise, the Cologne Games gave me hope that I could be competitive again," Bashore said. "After an unexpected follow-up surgery in February to remove a screw, I lost six weeks of training time and had more doubts. My performance encouraged me to target the USATF Masters Nationals in 2011 as my next big event. I was unsure if I would ever compete at that level again."

Bashore, 45, is a software development team leader—and Cologne marked his fourth Games.

"I thought the event was very well run. It was a great week," Bashore said. "The track was fast and fun. The half marathon course had varied terrain and we had a beautiful day for the race.

"Personally, I love the Games for the camaraderie. Everyone is in such a great mood that week and the competition is very enjoyable."

Bashore said the Cologne Games rank near the top of the four he's participated in.

"The Cologne organizers did a great job with the Games," he said. "The ceremonies were lively and memorable. Taylor Dayne at the Opening [ Ceremony ] was a treat and the band at the Closing Ceremony knew how to work the crowd. My events were very well planned and the athletes were in great spirits."

His most memorable Cologne moment came during the steeplechase race on Friday at the track. "My friend Chris Wolf won the race [ by ] .03 seconds," Bashore said. "It was very exciting. He came off the final barrier tied with the second-place guy and out-sprinted him to the finish. We couldn't tell who won until the finish photo was reviewed. In the same race, another friend, Mark Agulnik, won the bronze in his first steeplechase race. He decided to run the race the day before. It was a great day for my friends and exciting for the crowd, too."

Bashore attended the Cologne Games with his partner, Donald Brown.

"It was a really special week," Bashore said.

Santina Croniser was a two-sport competitor in Cologne, playing soccer and ice hockey.

"The USA gay hockey team won gold by default," she said. "A group of local Cologne kids mistook us for THE USA TEAM, the U.S. National Team, and asked for our photos and autographs.

"As for soccer, the Chicago Gold Stars [ team ] was plagued by injuries. We were poised to go for a medal [ round ] until Daina Carauskas, an excellent defender and the backup goalie, was badly injured. She was sorely missed the following day, when we lost our afternoon game and we were knocked out of the [ tournament ] . We ended up with a sixth-place finish out of 10 teams."

Still, she added, "We had a great time, and enjoyed the company of our rivals when we weren't playing each other. I swapped jerseys with the goalie of the first-place German team, Hobbergaasen.

"The only sour note was that the women were treated poorly in comparison to the men. We were much farther away than any of the men's soccer fields, and we had no water until Wednesday evening."

Jim Lasersohn, 45, a management consultant for Point B Inc., did not win any swimming medals in Cologne—but still was all smiles afterward.

"I was happy to have placed in the top six in four of my events and beat my best time in the 1500-meter [ race ] by 25 seconds," said Lasersohn, of Seattle, who has swam with the Chicago Smelts in the past. "I also was happy to have just completed the 200-meter butterfly. Even the best swimmers feel like they are going to die in that event, so I was proud to have completed it. In the Opening Ceremony, they talked about 'no shame in failure,' so it inspired me to go forward with that event when I had doubts about being able to complete it."

Lasersohn's German experience also included a meeting with Matthew Mitcham, the gay Australian Olympic gold medal diver. "He gave an inspiring talk to us and shared that, the energy at the Gay Games, inspired tears that he hasn't had since he won the gold in 2008," Lasersohn said. "He was gracious and personable and was more than willing to have photos taken with many of the swimmers."

Lasersohn has been attending—and participating in—International Gay and Lesbian Aquatics ( IGLA ) events since 1995 in a wide variety of places in the U.S., Canada and Europe, as well as Gay Games and World Outgames in Amsterdam, Sydney and Copenhagen.

"I have learned to appreciate that each city has something special to offer for the Games experience," Lasersohn said. "Cologne, being the most 'gay-friendly' city of Germany was an extremely welcoming city. It was small enough to get around by walking and using their excellent public transit system. They also offered outstanding sports facilities due to their university there. Many of the sports were [ held close to each other, ] so we could see other sports when we were not in the pool.

"One thing I love about the Games is that it brings us to places we might not have otherwise visited, and I think many were very pleased about visiting Cologne."

Gregg Schubert ran the 5K and 10K races—and his times in each were his best in five years.

"I was very personally satisfied," Schubert said. "The course was through a forest area just like the Wizard of Oz."

Though he didn't win a medal, Schubert said he had a "fantastic time." Starting at the Opening Ceremony.

"Team Chicago looked awesome in our uniforms and it was an honor to represent our country," Schubert said. "The camaraderie among everyone was awesome. It's too bad the world isn't like that every day. Even the last-place athlete was cheered along at every event.

"My roommate and another friend played tennis and finished in the top 16 out of 128. I think the Americans had a tough time with the clay courts. The basketball players from San Francisco, across the hall from me in our hotel, won the gold medal. In fact the U.S. swept the basketball medals."

Schubert also attended volleyball, soccer, track and field events, swimming, and biking.

"If you didn't know it was the Gay Games, you would have thought it was just a big sport festival because the competition was so high level," Schubert said. "It was great to have events where older people were able to feel they could be just as competitive as the younger participants.

"The city of Cologne was very welcoming and the residents would ask us what sport we were competing in, and would want to takes our pictures. I heard no anti-gay remarks [ from ] anyone. I believe Europe is much more tolerant of homosexuality. There were no Bible-carrying protesters like I have seen in the U.S."

The 51-year-old Schubert added: "It was very emotional for me to leave Cologne. I cried at least three times. I made many friends and hope to attend the next Games [ in Cleveland. ] "


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