By Leef Smith
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 30, 2006; PW12
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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Fisette was an avid swimmer long before he became Virginia's first openly gay elected official in 1997. Since then, he has worked hard to avoid being defined by his sexual orientation, careful not to be identified as "the gay guy."
Though Fisette said that his participation in the games was more about love of his sport than politics, he sees the games as a way for gays and heterosexuals to reach out to a community that still needs acceptance.
As participants filed into Soldier Field for opening ceremonies, they were met by a small band of protesters who used a megaphone to decry homosexuality, holding placards bearing such slogans as "Repent or Perish." Police said there were no arrests.
"How many sporting events can you go to where there are protesters . . . where people have bullhorns and are telling you homosexuality is a sin?" Fisette said in a telephone interview from Chicago. "You feel sorry for them, that they don't understand, but it's still there. It's a constant background noise."
The games, he said, are about breaking down barriers and changing attitudes.
"There are so many people who struggle and live in the closet," he said. "There's still so much pain. This is about breaking down boundaries and providing healthy experiences."
Some of Fisette's own healthiest experiences, moments that helped define him, were in the swimming pool, where he learned as a teenager to compete and win and lead.
The years of laps and kick-turns culminated at Bucknell University, in Central Pennsylvania, where he was captain of the swim team and the water polo team, which at the time was ranked seventh in the country.
"Swimming got in my blood," he said, and he described the sport as "a labor of love."
After graduating from college, Fisette planned to work at the University of Pittsburgh coaching water polo, but the school abruptly dropped the program to devote more resources to women's sports to comply with the federal Title IX law.
So Fisette took some time off and moved to San Francisco, where he came out. He has said the transition was relatively easy. It was about being honest with himself and others, he said.
"People say, 'When did you choose to be gay?' " Fisette said, sitting in his small County Board office, the day before he left for Chicago. "I didn't choose to be gay. I chose to accept it. If you don't have a choice, it's as natural as being heterosexual is to a straight person. How can a judgment be placed on that?"
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At a lanky 6-foot-1, Fisette still has a swimmer's build. He has kept trim through hours training with teammates from the Arlington Ageless Masters Team and the District of Columbia Aquatics Club, one of the largest gay and lesbian swim teams in the world.
Fisette has been an active member of the masters team since he turned 30, but the trip to Chicago was his first competitive venture since participating in the 1998 Gay Games in Amsterdam. At 42, he was competing with men several years his junior and was disappointed by his performance.
Having turned 50 in February, Fisette was eager to try the games again, this time competing as one of the youngest in a bracket for 50- to 54-year-olds. So in January he began training with vigor, visiting the pool as often as five times a week.
The hard work paid off.
In addition to the gold medal, Fisette brought home two silvers -- in the 100-meter individual medley and 200-meter medley relay -- and a bronze in the 200-meter freestyle relay. He placed fourth in the 100-meter freestyle and fifth in the 400- and 800-meter freestyle and 400-meter freestyle relay.
"I can't suppress my competitiveness," he said. "But in addition to the exhilaration of the competition, there's the frustration of swimming slower than I used to. The fact is, the older you get the slower you get, and the harder it is to keep an edge."
Despite all the years Fisette has spent improving his times in the pool, he still cringes at the thought of being pictured in the newspaper wearing the competitive gear of swimmers worldwide -- the Speedo.
"I'm an elected official!" he said, only half-joking.
* * *
Though the games are mainly about enjoyment, Fisette said there is a broader message that bears repeating.
"The stereotype is that athletes can't be gay," he said. "From Martina Navratilova to Sheryl Swoops to Greg Louganis to any number of world-class athletes -- the few who are willing to be open and honest about who they are -- it's clear that the stereotype is not true."
Although the Gay Games are primarily about inclusion and fun, the competition does draw highly skilled athletes, and officials said world records have been broken at the competition.
Winners are determined differently, depending on the sport. In swimming, for example, racers compete in one heat per event, and their times are ranked by age and gender. In other events, such as softball, teams are divided into divisions and then advance to the finals based on wins and losses.
Fisette, who has participated in four Gay Games, beginning in 1986, said he still gets a thrill out of the opening ceremonies. This year, athletes marched into Soldier Field wearing matching colors or uniforms -- Fisette and other athletes from the Washington region wore red polo shirts and khaki pants. Fisette said he was pleasantly surprised to run into an Arlington County employee during the procession. She told him that she was there to compete in sand volleyball, teamed with a straight friend.
"The ultimate goal here is to not have a Gay Games," Fisette said. "But we're a long way from that, from a time when your sexual orientation is not an issue, when the world provides all the support and encouragement that people need to be who they are."
So the games, he said, go on.