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Chicago Smelts, three decades of swimming
by Carrie Maxwell, Windy City Times
2018-09-12

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Thirty years ago, a group of gay men ( Mark Schoofs, Mike McGuire and Damon Mackert ) formed a swimming club called the Chicago Smelts ( Smelts ). This was at the height of the AIDS crisis when many gay men were dying of the disease. They, like other LGBT swimming clubs across the country, did this for health and social reasons.

At first, the club was met with resistance by the Chicago Park District when they tried to schedule dedicated pool times to practice.

According to the team's website, "Gill Park in Chicago's Boystown neighborhood already had a practice time for Master's swimmers, and by winning over the sole swimmer who regularly utilized the time, the Smelts residency at Gill Park began. That sole swimmer, Ross Patronsky, still swims with the Smelts today."

"I saw that they were a good group so I joined up with them," said Patronsky. "Over time, the team has focused more narrowly on meet competitions over recreational swimming and now has a much broader range of ages—20s to 80s."

In order to keep their practice time at Gill Park, the team had to attend the Gill Park Advisory Council meetings, run for council leadership positions and meet with the Alderman at the time—Helen Schiller.

Due to the team's presence in the community, the Smelts were seen as fundraising leaders for HIV/AIDS and LGBTQ causes during the early years of the organization.

"The grassroots volunteerism of the early years stands out to me," said 28-year member Bradley Dineen.

Bruce Wexelberg, who joined the team shortly after it was formed, said raising money during team hosted swim-a-thon's was a great contribution to LGBTQ and HIV/AIDS causes.

Outside of their activism, the team has spent time together socially at their annual Thanksgiving dinner that they call "Smeltsgiving."

"Over food we share our stories, experiences and just let go," said Le'Mikas Lavender. "When I moved to this city from Japan, I did not know anyone and now the team has become my family."

"I found the Smelts when I was looking online for an adult team sport," said Michael Cowen. "I arrived not knowing it was an LGBTQ swim team, but I have been swimming proud ever since."

"I learned about the team from a friend who was staying with my husband and me between overseas work assignments 20 years ago," said Ruth Giles-Ott. "He told me I should join. I said, 'But I'm straight. I do not want to make anyone there uncomfortable, they are probably glad to be away from straight people.' He said straight people were welcome, and invited me to join him at practice."

Giles-Ott explained that the coach allayed her fears immediately and now they are her extended family. She recently served as the team's co-chair and has officiated at six Smelts weddings—one straight couple, one lesbian couple and four gay couples.

"These weddings were all extremely moving and precious to me," said Giles-Ott.

Smelts Co-Chair Emily Traw explained that she joined the team because they exuded happiness as they arrived for their practice at Gill Park. She observed this as she was finishing up swimming laps during the pool's individual lap swim time.

"The community and family I found was a complete surprise, and I have been grateful every day since," said Traw.

The Smelts other co-chair Anna Comella joined when she moved to Chicago in 2010 to make friends within the LGBTQ community.

"I wanted to get a good workout doing something I loved so I researched all the swim teams in Chicago and found the Smelts," said Comella. "I joined right away because it was the only team that was made up of mostly LGBTQ people. I was immediately welcomed and quickly learned the team was not just a swim team it was also a group of friends. My life would not be what it is today without the Smelts."

This family atmosphere has resulted in group camping trips, shared meals, informal 5K runs, holiday-themed workouts and dressing up in group costumes for Halloween. They have also had a contingent march in Chicago's Pride Parade since its founding.

Member Patrick Tranmer spoke about the team's mutual respect for each other attributing to everyone's close-knit relationships over the years.

Early on, the team started participated in local meets and later traveled to other cities to compete. They have competed in every Gay Games since 1990.

In 1992, the team joined the International LGBT+ Aquatics ( IGLA ) and two years later hosted the annual IGLA swim meet at the University of Illinois, Chicago. When the Gay Games came to Chicago in 2006 the team grew with more gay men, other queer folks and straight people joining the team to compete at the games. Now there are about 130 members.

"When we hosted the annual IGLA swim meet the team was small so pretty much everyone was involved in some way in making it a very successful weekend," said long-time member Chris Layton.

The team has been the Illinois Masters State Champions for the past four years, most recently at the April 15, 2018 meet. They also hold the distinction of being the only IGLA team to win a statewide United States Masters Swimming championship meet across the country.

A number of Smelts said these victories are a direct result of how hard the team works. Giles-Ott explained that in years past some straight teams would smirk at the idea of an LGBTQ swim team but no one smirks now.

In terms of the role that these LGBTQ masters swim teams play in today's world, Lavender said that despite the many victories the community has made over the years many people still face hate and negativity and the Smelts provides a safe space for them in the sporting world.

"I thought it was ground-breaking to have gay swim meets in the early years and was thrilled to participate," said Wexelberg. "It is wonderful that gay sporting events are now just part the norm."

"I think the challenge for every sport in the coming years is going to be finding just and equitable ways to accommodate athletes who are gender non-conforming, intersex or transgender in our practice and competition spaces," said Bolf. "Right now, one must be either 'female' or 'male' for purposes of competition, and using the public park district locker rooms and showers can be socially, if not legally, stressful for people outside of the gender binary. So that is a place for us to grow as a team and hopefully lead the way."

For more information about joining the team contact the board at info@chicagosmelts.org or visit ChicagoSmelts.org .


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