Making A Statement In the Pool

By Leef Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 30, 2006

In 1980, Jay Fisette was 24 years old, living in San Francisco and ready to tell his parents that he was gay. It was an anxious moment.

"I want to explain to you why I came to live here," he recalled telling his mother.

She interrupted, her tone full of disappointment.

"I know why. You went there to play water polo."

As it turned out, his mother wasn't entirely wrong.

It was in San Francisco that Fisette, an accomplished collegiate swimmer and water polo player, would later participate in an upstart competition called the Gay Games. Although few of the athletes had world-class skills, they were drawn to the games' message of inclusion and pride.

Since then, that message has resonated loudly.

Last week, Fisette, a member of the Arlington County Board, was back at it, taking his place among the more than 11,500 athletes from around the globe who traveled to Chicago to participate in the seventh quadrennial Gay Games. Fisette, who turned 50 this year, walked away with four medals, including a gold in the 50-meter backstroke.

The week-long sporting event drew more than 60,000 spectators, many of whom crowded Soldier Field for an Olympics-style opening ceremony and appearances by show-business glitterati and sports greats such as Olympic gold medalist Greg Louganis. The famed diver first publicly acknowledged that he was gay at the 1994 Gay Games in New York.

The event, known to fans as the "Gaymes," has blossomed since its beginning in 1982. Today it has taken on a strong international presence, with hundreds of corporate sponsors and big-ticket Hollywood entertainment. The competition includes such traditional Olympic sports as swimming, cycling, hockey and track and field, plus nontraditional ones including bowling, flag football and same-sex ballroom dancing.

What has not changed is the event's larger mission to erase the damage that negative stereotyping has done to the gay community, as well as to bolster self-esteem and emphasize the simple joys of athletic participation. The games are open to everyone -- gay, straight, world-class athlete and weekend warrior.

"While we expect there are always going to be top-level athletes and records being broken, the whole mission is about participation and personal bests," said Kevin Boyer, a vice chairman of the Gay Games board of directors. "We welcome all types of people."

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