The Cleveland Aquatic Team has come a long way since its formation in 2010.
Initially created to compete at 2014’s Gay Games 9 in Cleveland, the LGBTQ+ U.S. Masters Swimming team has continued to grow, expanding its membership and competing in everything from local to international meets. And while a love of swimming is the main draw for members, the athleticism, camaraderie and teamwork is what keeps them coming back to the water.
The Buckeye Flame dove into what motivates the Cleveland Aquatic Team and got a preview of two upcoming meets with longtime member Tom Stebel.
Who can join the Cleveland Aquatic Team?
TS: We are open to all sexual identities, gender identities, and abilities. You don’t have to be a great swimmer to swim with us. We have transgender swimmers and quite a few gender non-conforming individuals. We have probably a pretty equal distribution of men and women. And on occasion there will be a heterosexual person that wants to swim with us. It might be safer for a woman, or maybe we’re just more fun.
We have swimmers from about 21 years old to 76 years old. I would say the median swimmer might be 50. We’re definitely intergenerational and interracial.
What are the team’s goals?
One of our goals is physical fitness. We could all be training on our own, but it’s certainly not as fun and it’s not the same as training with other people, because they’ll notice some of your goals or might pick up on something that you’re doing right and compliment you on that.
Competitively, we always have our eye on the next meet. And that means improving yourself and your practice. So that’s part of our goal.
But mostly, we want to have an outlet for people to exercise, enjoy the love of swimming, and make our team visible as a queer team. We practice three times a week at Cleveland State University. All of those students see us, know us, and love that we’re coming there because we’re more fun and easier to get along with than many of the other teams that they deal with. We have a student as our coach, and that person benefits by being our coach as much as we benefit from them. I think for the people who aren’t competing it’s about exercise and fun.
Why is the camaraderie you offer so important to LGBTQ+ people in particular?
Most LGBTQ people have felt some sort of discrimination and were made to feel like an outsider—especially on a sports team—where often they’re the laughingstock of the team and bullied. I did Little League and that was my experience on a sports team. I wasn’t interested in ever being on one again…until I was nearly 48 years old and joined the swim team. This gives every person a chance to flourish in a group setting. We support each other in the pool, but also outside of the pool: weddings, children, funerals. We support each other through life.
For instance, oftentimes in a heat at the Gay Games, the person who would come in first would get some applause. But the person who came in last always gets the most amount of applause. Oftentimes, the whole building would erupt in applause for this person, just because they tried. My teammates and I always bring our authentic queer selves to a meet. It brings visibility and awareness that queer people are athletes, and they might even be better you. It’s just a really nice way to make friends and have lifelong friendships and exercise at the same time.
How did COVID impact the group?
As an athlete, your body and your mind are used to a certain level of physical exercise. Pools were closed when we had the stay-at-home orders. That was a struggle to maintain one’s physical self and mental stability. We started with zoom meetings and slowly we started swimming in pools once they opened up. It took quite some time and quite an effort to find a pool that was going to allow us all to swim together at the same time. When we did, that was really helpful for everybody’s mental and physical state. One of our teammates even decided to build a lap pool in his backyard and we started training there as well. And wow, what a blessing.
One trend we’ve been noticing is that, as of January when things started to quiet down a bit with COVID, we’ve had some new swimmers, and they all are trending younger and more gender diverse. Maybe it could be a post-COVID need for exercise or community? Maybe younger people noticed it more that they needed that.
Tell us about your upcoming swim meets.
On March 27, we have a local swim meet at Cleveland State University, hosted by our local U.S. Masters Swimming group. That’s our home pool, and it’s bound to bring a lot of our swimmers out, including people who haven’t been swimming recently or haven’t competed.
Following that is an International Gay Lesbian Aquatics (IGLA) competition April 6–10, in Palm Springs, California. There’s at least two of us that are already registered, and then some people who are lagging, but they’ll get there. I know we’ll at least have a small bunch competing there. That’s really important for our team and for our city to be represented. 🔥