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How IGLA Keeps the 'Gay' in Swimming

By Damin Esper

Just a couple more weeks until the good wet fun—and serious competition—that is the International Gay and Lesbian Aquatics' (IGLA) 2007 world championships. This year's championships kicks off with a big splash in Paris from May 23 to 28, the first time the event has been held in Europe since 2000.

IGLA is the world's largest organization devoted to LGBT swimming, water polo, and other aquatic sports like diving and syncronized swimming, and arguably one of the most successful gay sports-specific organizations out there. The organization fosters LGBT aquatic sports team cooperation and development, acts as the governing body of aquatic events at the Gay Games, and hosts international championships every year when the Gay Games aren't running. All of that planning and organization helps ensure that serious competition and participation among gay athletes continues every year, and that swimming remains one of the most well-represented sports at the Gay Games.

IGLA—A Backgrounder
These days many sports have their own LGBT umbrella organization—but IGLA was among the first, arriving fast on the founding footsteps of the Gay Games itself. The organization got started at a grassroots level following the second Gay Games in San Francisco in 1986, when several swimmers got together informally and wondered why they would have to wait four more years for a chance to get together again.

"We had a meeting of team leaders and representatives of teams at Gay Games II in the stands," said Charlie Carson, who was at that meeting. "The guys from San Diego volunteered to host the first one."

At that time, the organization called itself West Coast Swim League, as most of the teams were located on the West Coast. But the group planned to expand and eventually, it voted to adopt a more inclusive name to reflect its size and international status.

Good Witch, Bad Name
Although, not without some humorous misfires. Carson has written a funny history of the organization's early days, in which he recounts how IGLA co-founder Rafael Montijo suggested a convoluted name with the acronym "GLINDA." As in, the good witch in the Wizard of Oz.

Twenty years later and with a much better name, the IGLA championships are still going strong. The 2005 championships—the most recent standalone championships as IGLA members met at Gay Games VII in 2006—were hosted by the Atlanta Rainbow Trout and drew over 700 competitors. Masters records were set, good times were had, and the DC Aquatics Club continued its winning streak, taking home the large team championship for the fourth year in a row.

This year's meet will be held in Paris and will include a full range of traditional swimming and water polo events as well as diving and synchronized swimming. Over 1,000 athletes have been invited and IGLA organizers expect clubs from all over the world to attend.

"The IGLA championships are always very rewarding," said Doug Fadel, IGLA board member and coach of the Queer Utah Athletic Club in Salt Lake City. "It's a large group—on the small end it's 400-plus and on the large end it's closer to 1,000. The competition is stiff and some of the swimmers are setting masters records.

"The social aspects are great as well. They always do a business meeting as part of the championships [and] have dances at night."

Pink Flamingos—A Splash of Drag, A Soupçon of Camp
For many attendees, including Fadel, the "Pink Flamingo" performance—an aquatic drag pageant in which teams compete for the Pink Flamingo Trophy—provides a welcome bit of old-fashioned gay fun to offset the competition. The host team picks a theme and teams perform skits on the deck and in the water—yes, like an old Ester Williams movie.

"Some are lip-sync," Fadel said. "It's deck work and fall in the water. It's always a crowd pleaser and it's always a big part of the IGLA championships."

How to Build a Good Board: Start Them in the Pool First
Fadel said that he first heard of IGLA from a friend who attended the Gay Games in 1994. The next year, he competed at the IGLA championships and the next year, he joined the board.

"When I got back, I started a swim team here in Salt Lake," he said. "There was nothing like that here. I was coaching swimming teams here. Once I saw all those other teams, I wanted to start one."

Bernie LaFianza of West Hollywood Aquatics shares a similar story. He went to the IGLA championships in Toronto in 2001 and then the Gay Games in Sydney in 2002 as his team's delegate. The next year, he, too, joined the board.

Ditto for board member Brad Hise of the San Francisco Tsunami. He joined his team in 2003, started working on IGLA committees in 2004 and joined the board in 2005.

Wanted: More Lesbian Swimmers, More Cooperation
That kind of straight-from-the-pool participation has been one of the strengths of the organization. But IGLA has also faced some growing pains. One key issue—which to be fair many LGBT sporting groups face—has been attracting the "L" in LGBT—female swimmers.

"We're seeing right now less participation by women than we've had," Carson said. "I'm not sure what the reasons for that are, but I'm not seeing it addressed by the current leadership. The women come in for a while but seem to fade away. I'd like us to look into it and try to see what the causes are."

Another big issue is the one facing the Gay Games as well—a split in philosophy about how the gay sports organizations should work together. The dual games held last year in Chicago and Montreal have led some in IGLA to push to substitute the Outgames for IGLA's championships. Currently, IGLA holds a meet in each non-Gay Games year. The Gay Games serve in lieu of an IGLA event.

"I would like to see the gay sports movement reunify because there's been a split," LaFianza said. "We don't help our own cause when we split. And we're splitting a limited number of people."

IGLA's board members say they plan to discuss these and other issues at the annual meeting at the championships in late May. We trust they'll come up with a good solution. For the rest of the competitors, it will be all fun and games and friendly competition in gay Paris. Now let's see some more masters records shattered!