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Real Athlete: Swimmer Scott Robinson

By Jeff Titterton

Real Athlete is an ongoing series of interviews with inspirational, out gay athletes from around the world. Are you a Real Athlete? Take our Real Athlete Survey.

He leads the kind of active and well-rounded athletic life that most guys just dream of. Meet Scott Robinson, a successful environmental geologist by day and competitive swimmer and swim coach by night and weekend. Robinson, 40, has been swimming in meets since he was six years old. He swam competitively in high school and for his alma mater, Williams College in Massachusetts, and he's never stopped since.

Robinson continues to swim at the Masters level and is currently the head coach of San Francisco's GLBT Tsunami swim team. When he's not in the pool or coaching others, Robinson can be found running or cycling—he's been known to clock a sub-three-hour marathon, has participated in three California AIDS LifeCycle rides, and is a former competitive triathlete.

An Iowa native, Robinson has moved around a lot in his adult life—from Massachusetts to Virginia to Oregon to San Francisco—and in early 2006 he's undertaking his biggest move yet, to Sydney, Australia. We caught up with him just before he embarked on his next great life adventure in the great Down Under.

When did you first become interested in sports? Has this been a lifelong passion?
I am the fourth of sixth children, and I started swimming competitively when I was six years old. [My family] would go to these weekend-long swim meets in the summertime, and we'd go camp and there would be a couple of other families that would go and camp too. I tried little league softball and played football in junior high, but I was really uncoordinated as a kid; I had really bad eyes, and I think my eye-hand coordination sucked because of that. I ran cross-country and track in high school, but after freshman year in high school I just swam.

What strokes did you do competitively in high school and college?
Freestyle and backstroke are my main strokes, but I do all the strokes and compete in the individual medley [which uses backstroke, butterfly, breaststroke, and freestyle].

What sports do you still compete in?
Currently swimming and running. I haven't actually competed in road races in awhile, but I do them on occasion. I used to compete in triathlons; I did that for about six years, but I haven't done any since I moved to California. I still ride my bike a lot—I've done three of the AIDS LifeCycle [rides]. I find myself training a lot more but not competing as much anymore.

Tell us about coaching the gay swim team Tsunami in San Francisco.
I started coaching [Tsunami] about four years ago, about a year before the Gay Games [in Sydney, Australia]. I've always coached a swim team, pretty much ever since I graduated from college. When I moved to San Francisco nine years ago, I coached and swam with Masters team Fog City Masters for a couple of years, and then I quit that and began swimming with another team, University of San Francisco Masters. So there were a couple of years there when I wasn't coaching. [At that time] I was really unhappy with my swimming, so I [began looking for a way] to make swimming enjoyable again. I thought it would be fun to be involved with Tsunami, the gay swim team [as a coach], and thought that would bring some of the fun back into swimming for me.

Coaching is something I enjoy. I find that I can have a really tough day at work, and I can go to the pool, and for that hour and a half I'm focused on other people rather than myself. You just feel so energized, and you forget all of your problems because you're totally focused on someone else.

Describe your training regimen when you're prepping for a swimming event.
I usually swim three to four times per week. The practices with the Masters team at the University of San Francisco are usually an hour and fifteen minutes to an hour and a half. Usually we're getting in 4,000 yards on average.

I also lift weights twice per week, and do yoga two or three times per week. I started doing yoga five years ago as a balance to weight lifting and to increase flexibility. It's been incredible for me in terms of building true strength—by that I mean core strength in terms of an athlete, and not just being able to lift a big weight. It's great for injury prevention. I really encourage a lot of the [swimmers I coach] to do it, because a lot of them have back and shoulder issues as they get older, and I think it's really great for that. And in that last two years I find myself doing it for the meditative or calming aspects of it as well. It's great to go and turn my brain off for a while.

What is your favorite stroke?
My best stroke would be freestyle, and then backstroke. But in terms of favorites, it's been nice as I've gotten older to challenge myself, and in the last year I've been working on butterfly and breaststroke. And I really enjoy butterfly because once you get it it's a very smooth and amazing stroke to swim. Breaststroke is the one that I have the hardest time with; I just can't seem to get the rhythm down.

Give us an overview of your eating habits. Do you consider yourself a perfect eater?
I certainly don't obsess about what I eat. I started a couple of years ago following the Blood Type Diet. It kept coming up with athletic friends of mine I talked to. I have a scientific background, and I looked at it in terms of an analytical approach, and to me the science behind the diet made a lot of sense. I follow that diet in terms of looking for things to avoid in my diet, [such as corn, tomatoes, and chicken for my particular blood type.]

About three years ago I also started taking supplements—glyconutrients [essential sugars that are lacking from the standard American diet]. I don't know if it's the eating for my blood type diet or the glyconutrients, but since I started I've found it very easy to stay lean and to build muscle mass.

I don't eat a lot of protein in terms of meat. I get a lot of protein from cottage cheese or yogurt or protein shakes. But I certainly don't obsess. I eat a lot of ice cream—I probably go through a couple of pints of Ben & Jerry's a week.

I also try to eat more organic foods and things that are grown locally, and I really try to cut out anything that has high-fructose corn syrup in it. But again, I don't want to spend my life obsessing about food. As an athlete, too, I feel like food is fuel for the machine, and what's more important is just to get the food rather than to obsess about the absolute quality of it.

Do you consider yourself a competitive person?
I'm competitive with myself. I don't think I'm necessarily competitive with other people. I've always done individual sports—swimming, running, cycling—[in which] you're racing against the clock and your time as much as racing against another person. With team sports it's more about scoring goals, and so there's a lot of competing against another group of people.

Do you think almost anyone can become a competitive swimmer as an adult?
Definitely. That's one thing that's great about Masters swimming. [On the Tsunami team], we have a lot of people who just learned how to swim as adults. Masters swimming is great, because you can have ex-Olympic swimmers at a meet, and you can have people swimming at a meet for the first time. And because it's primarily an individual sport, you're more looking at your own times and trying to improve your own times. We have a lot of people come in and start swimming late in life.

[Swimming] is a lifelong sport, and it's an amazing group of people. I've moved around a lot, and it's very easy to find the swimmers because they're in the swimming pool. It's a little bit harder to find a running community or a cycling community, because they're out on the roads. But you always know where the swimmers are going to be.

Does being gay impact you as an athlete? Do the two meet in any way?
For me personally, no. But for some people, I would say yes. I see that a little bit on the Tsunami swim team—a lot of people on the swim team are more focused on the gay swim meets. As a coach, I have tried to work with the Board to get people to compete in some of the local meets that aren't strictly gay, and get them to realize that they're just as much fun as the gay meets.

For some people the focus is on gay swimming, but for me it's just swimming and the gay is just secondary to that.

Have you ever just wanted to quit swimming? And if so, how did you get through it?
I was definitely going through a rough time with swimming about three years ago. It wasn't fun, I didn't enjoy the people I was swimming with, and I was going through a lot of shoulder issues, injuries and things like that. So rather than going to the pool and feeling better about myself, I would go to the pool and feel worse.

But I've never thought about just giving up sports in general. When I get kind of tired of swimming, I usually switch and I'll do a lot more running—I'll swim one or two times per week and I'll run three times a week. I didn't ride my bike for three or four years, and then I started riding with people from the AIDS ride and found the joy of cycling again. Just doing different things keeps it exciting.

Do you have any sports role models? Who inspires you?
I don't really have a big role model in terms of a sports star. As a coach, I'm really motivated by those swimmers who are just starting out. We started a competitors club with Tsunami to encourage people to compete, and it's really exciting to have people come and tell me that they just swam a 100 fly for the first time or they got a gold medal at one of the local meets.

I did recently read [Australian swimming star] Ian Thorpe's biography. I've never been a big person to follow sport athletes, but I was really impressed with his mentality about swimming, and a lot of things that he said really clicked with me. His philosophy of swimming is something that I've adapted or related to very well.