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Smelts mark 25 years in the pool
by Ross Forman, Windy City Times

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Paul Mittleman has been swimming for the predominantly gay Chicago Smelts for 24 of the team's 25 years—longer than some of his teammates have even been alive.

Mittleman, 57, who lives in Chicago's Edgewater neighborhood, is the vice president for the Hispanic Housing Development Corporation and had a civil union in 2012 with his partner of 13 years, Michael Calcagno.

Mittleman joined the Smelts about a year after it was formed.

"I was on the swim team for a while in high school, so I was a decent swimmer," Mittleman said. "I was looking to stay in shape, [and] the location and the practice times were convenient. Plus, the people were great.

"I think that the intensity of the workouts were what has kept me there for all these years. It's difficult on your own to workout at the same intensity that you can with a coached practice. We have always have had great coaches that put in a huge amount of time in exchange for simple recognition once a year at our pre-Thanksgiving team party.

"Swimming is still fun and still a great workout. Plus, I have made lots of friends and gotten to know quite a number of people through the Smelts."

The Smelts this year feature 133 members on the co-ed club, with 64 percent male swimmers.

"There were always some really great swimmers on the team, but in recent years, the depth of swimming talent has really expanded. Now there are lots of really great swimmers on the team and we are one of the top Masters [Division] swim teams in the state," Mittleman said. "We've always had straight women and some straight men on the team—now there are more straight people who swim for the great workouts and nice people.

"The level of participation in swim meets and other athletic events have varied. In the early days, there was a lot of participation in triathlon-type events. The Big Shoulders swimming event in Lake Michigan has always been very popular, too. Now we have strong participation in swim meets."

Mittleman was 33 when he joined the Smelts and now admits, "I never would have thought that I would have spent 70 percent of my adult life swimming with the Smelts."

But it keeps him fit, "and I still think that I get some looks from handsome younger guys … or maybe I'm just dreaming," he said, laughing.

"When I started on the team, I just remember that a lot of the guys were younger than I was, and [they were] so handsome and such great athletes; it was a little intimidating."

But he persevered, and is smiling wide today.

"I remember, in the early 1990s, we used to have practice on Saturday afternoons," Mittleman said. "After practice, my friend John used to come over to my house; we'd eat any leftover food from the week and then we would go over to Sidetrack, where they would have, at that time, two-stepping [dancing] instruction. John got to be a pretty good dancer; I never quite got the hang of it. Then we'd play pool at Roscoe's and generally make a night of it."

In 1996, a Smelts member organized a biathlon (swimming and running) at Illinois Beach State Park. The race started early one morning, so many of the team members camped out. That memory is still strong for Mittleman.

"The Smelts is a great group of fun-loving, unpretentious athletes," he said.

Added team member Lemikas Levender, "The Smelts foster an atmosphere of camaraderie, with swimmers of all ability-levels and speeds. Through social events and community service, the team aims to promote personal growth and pride for all its members."

The team will be represented at the annual Illinois Masters Swimming Association state meet, which is April 25-28 at Glenbrook South High School in Glenview.

Smelts members also will be participating this September in the annual Big Shoulders Open Water Swim Classic, a 5K event that kicks off at Ohio Street Beach.

"I am one of the few Smelts who swim regularly that has been a member since the 1980s, and I reflect on it sometimes," he said. "It is a great workout, with fun people that is not expensive; I can't think of anything else that I would rather do to stay fit.

"The Smelts certainly have helped me stay in shape; plus, I have met lots of friends over the years through the team."

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