Windy City Media Group Frontpage News
Celebrating 30 Years of Gay Lesbian Bisexual and Trans News
home search facebook twitter join
Gay News Sponsor Windy City Times 2019-08-07
About WCMG Publications News Index  Entertainment Features Bars & Clubs Calendar Videos Advertisers OUT! Guide    Marriage



Chicago Smelts, three decades of swimming
by Carrie Maxwell, Windy City Times

facebook twitter pin it google +1 reddit email

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 or visit .

facebook twitter pin it google +1 reddit email

Windy City Media Group does not approve or necessarily agree with the views posted below.
Please do not post letters to the editor here. Please also be civil in your dialogue.
If you need to be mean, just know that the longer you stay on this page, the more you help us.


Gay News

Illinois Gay Rodeo Association presents Rodeo Round Town 2019-08-20 - The Illinois Gay Rodeo Association presents Rodeo Round Town, a three-day series of events throughout Chicago, continuing the tradition of the annual Windy ...

Gay News

PASSAGES CMSA Hall of Famer/former North End co-owner Bobby Nicholson 2019-08-07 - Games were played Aug. 4, but with heavy hearts—and tribute ribbons attached to players' and umpires' uniforms. The balls and strikes, safe and ...

Gay News

Women's national soccer team in Chicago on Oct. 6 2019-08-02 - U.S. Soccer announced the women's national team will play South Korea on Sunday, Oct. 6, at 1 p.m. at Soldier Field in the ...

Gay News

Women's soccer coach Ellis to retire 2019-07-31 - On July 30, U.S. Soccer announced that Jill Ellis—who won her second Women's World Cup as head coach of the U.S. women's national ...

Gay News

WOMEN'S WORLD CUP U.S. wins championship 2019-07-07 - On July 7 in Lyon, France, the United States claimed a fourth Women's World Cup triumph with a 2-0 victory over European champions ...

Gay News

Lesbian tennis player: More athletes should 'come forward' 2019-07-07 - Professional tennis player Alison Van Uytvanck told The Guardian that more of her fellow athletes should come out of the closet, according to ...

Gay News

Cubs affiliate calls out Kaepernick, draws flag 2019-07-03 - The Tennessee Smokies—a minor league affiliate of the Chicago Cubs based in the town of Kodak—deleted and apologized for a tweet in which ...

Gay News

WOMEN'S WORLD CUP U.S. beats England, advances to final 2019-07-02 - The United States is returning to the World Cup final, thanks to a 2-1 victory over England on July 2 in Lyon, France. ...

Gay News

PRIDE WEEKEND 2019 Proud to Run marks 38 years with first-ever half-marathon race 2019-06-30 - Proud To Run, presented by Frontrunners Chicago, celebrated 38 years with its annual 5K run/walk, 10K run and, for the first time ever, ...

Gay News

WOMEN'S WORLD CUP U.S. beats host France, advances to semis 2019-06-28 - Scoring two goals for the second consecutive game, Megan Rapinoe led the U.S. women's national team to a 2-1 quarterfinal win over host ...


Copyright © 2019 Windy City Media Group. All rights reserved.
Reprint by permission only. PDFs for back issues are downloadable from
our online archives. Single copies of back issues in print form are
available for $4 per issue, older than one month for $6 if available,
by check to the mailing address listed below.

Return postage must accompany all manuscripts, drawings, and
photographs submitted if they are to be returned, and no
responsibility may be assumed for unsolicited materials.
All rights to letters, art and photos sent to Nightspots
(Chicago GLBT Nightlife News) and Windy City Times (a Chicago
Gay and Lesbian News and Feature Publication) will be treated
as unconditionally assigned for publication purposes and as such,
subject to editing and comment. The opinions expressed by the
columnists, cartoonists, letter writers, and commentators are
their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Nightspots
(Chicago GLBT Nightlife News) and Windy City Times (a Chicago Gay,
Lesbian, Bisexual and Transegender News and Feature Publication).

The appearance of a name, image or photo of a person or group in
Nightspots (Chicago GLBT Nightlife News) and Windy City Times
(a Chicago Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender News and Feature
Publication) does not indicate the sexual orientation of such
individuals or groups. While we encourage readers to support the
advertisers who make this newspaper possible, Nightspots (Chicago
GLBT Nightlife News) and Windy City Times (a Chicago Gay, Lesbian
News and Feature Publication) cannot accept responsibility for
any advertising claims or promotions.







About WCMG Publications News Index  Entertainment Features Bars & Clubs Calendar Videos Advertisers OUT! Guide    Marriage

About WCMG      Contact Us      Online Front  Page      Windy City  Times      Nightspots      OUT! Guide     
Identity      BLACKlines      En La Vida      Archives      Subscriptions      Distribution      Windy City Queercast     
Queercast Archives      Advertising  Rates      Deadlines      Advanced Search     
Press  Releases      Event Photos      Join WCMG  Email List      Email Blast     
Upcoming Events      Todays Events      Ongoing Events      Post an Event      Bar Guide      Community Groups      In Memoriam      Outguide Categories      Outguide Advertisers      Search Outguide      Travel      Dining Out      Blogs      Spotlight  Video     
Classifieds      Real Estate      Place a  Classified     

Windy City Media Group publishes Windy City Times,
The Bi-Weekly Voice of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Trans Community.
5315 N. Clark St. #192, Chicago, IL 60640-2113 • PH (773) 871-7610 • FAX (773) 871-7609.