At the beginning of this year, Michael Phelps left his home in Baltimore and began training in the Phoenix area. The move was a result of his coach, Bob Bowman, moving there to take on the head coaching position at Arizona State University. Phelps had done the same thing in the years leading up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics when Bowman was coaching at the University of Michigan.
US Swimming has a mandate that swimmers must compete under the banner of a registered club or swim unattached. All throughout the lead up to the 2016 Rio Olympics, Phelps continued to swim in competitions representing his home club of North Baltimore Aquatic Club even though he was training in Phoenix.
The same is true in US Masters Swimming that a swimmer can train anywhere in the world and yet represent the club of their choice. It is also the case in other master’s sports such as soccer, basketball and water polo. When the local LGBT sports teams from D.C. travel to tournaments across the globe they are often joined by athletes who don’t train with them though they compete with them as teammates.
Swimming is one of those sports that are both individual and team based. A swimmer is allowed to compete unattached from a team but that would preclude them from being able to participate in relays or earn points in team competitions.
Meet three gay swimmers who live and train in different parts of the world and represent the LGBT-based District of Columbia Aquatics Club in national and international competitions. All three have won gold medals at the Gay Games and the IGLA World Championships with their D.C. teammates.
For Matt Kinney, the bond with DC Aquatics is unbreakable and when other teams have tried to recruit him in the past, he has politely declined. His connection to the team began after he moved to the area in 1995 to accept a swim coach position at University of Mary Washington.
“I didn’t know much about masters swimming at that point,” says Kinney. “I had been training all along so I figured I might as well compete.”
Growing up in Canton, Ohio, Kinney was a wrestler until an injury forced him out of the sport. He began swimming in his sophomore year of high school. He swam in college at Case Western Reserve University and continued in collegiate swimming after he transferred to Kenyon College. He received his graduate degree in sports management from Western Illinois University before accepting the coaching position at Mary Washington.
“I was a young gay man when I arrived in the D.C. area and it was a very influential time for me,” Kinney says. “DC Aquatics is my family and those relationships will last a lifetime. It was a wonderful experience and nice to have that commonality.”
In 2007, Kinney accepted the head coaching position of the men’s and women’s swim teams at Carnegie Mellon University. Instead of joining a Pittsburgh team or swimming unattached, he continues to represent DC Aquatics in competitions.
“My allegiance to the team is strong and I can’t get my head around competing for anyone else,” says Kinney. It’s like being an age grouper again where you are perpetually on the same relays with the same teammates.”
Craig Franz grew up in Baltimore and though he stayed athletically active, he was never part of a team. He received degrees from Bucknell University, La Salle University and Drexel University along with his doctorate from the University of Rhode Island. He was swimming laps at a pool in Peace Dale, R.I., in 2007 when a coach noticed his abilities and recruited him to the master’s team.
He began competing in the pool with the team and also found himself drawn to the teammates who were training for open water swimming. He moved to D.C. the following year and joined DC Aquatics.
“DC Aquatics is a group of talented, bright, enthusiastic and athletically inclined individuals who come together to better themselves,'” says Franz. “It’s a very supportive and positive atmosphere.”
Franz moved to Rome, Italy, in 2011 where he works in fundraising and development of schools and health clinics in forgotten areas of the world. He also chose to remain tied to DC Aquatics and has traveled the world with them including stops in Cologne, Seattle, Cleveland and Stockholm. Just last week he joined his teammates in Edmonton for the IGLA World Championships. He has also become an avid open water competitor.
“I try to fill every weekend in Italy with open water swims or races,” Franz says. “I am a marine biologist by trade and I love being out in open water swimming long distances. I embrace pushing myself physically, mentally and spiritually.”
Franz has taken several months off over the past few years and has traveled around the world training and competing in 25 different cities. The open water trek included swims in multiple major bodies of water including the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans, the Adriatic Sea and the Caribbean. Franz has the best of both worlds when he segues from the solitary nature of open water swimming to the atmosphere of being on a team.
“I really enjoy the time we spend at swim meets and the fascinating conversations with my teammates who come from all types of workplaces,” says Franz. “Our connection through sports allows us to speak the same language and share the same history.”
Jay Calhoun had always felt like he was missing out by not being part of a team. He was training with the straight-based Southern California Aquatics but was competing at LGBT swim meets as an unattached competitor. The SoCal training group is 800 strong but most of the swimmers do not compete. Over the years he has periodically reached out to California LGBT teams only to run into attitudes and drama.
“I finally gave up on finding a good team match here and reached out to DC Aquatics because I had a friend on the team,” says Calhoun. “My first meet with them was the 2014 Gay Games in Cleveland and I have never swum with a group of people who couldn’t care less about personalities and problems. After two meets with them, I can say that I have never been this engaged with teammates.”
Calhoun began swimming competitively at age eight and his father’s job moved the family from Colorado to Maryland to California. He competed with the University of Colorado at Boulder while earning his degree in economics and environmental design. He is now living in Los Angeles and working as a florist.
At that first meet in Cleveland, Calhoun won over his DC Aquatics teammates with his quick wit and engaging banter between races. His first chance to cement his status as a teammate came when he anchored the 800 freestyle relay in a come-from-behind swim that won the Gay Games gold medal for him and his fellow teammates.
For many swimmers, the thrill of having a relay victory is something that can’t be matched by a good individual swim. Calhoun made the most of finally getting that opportunity. That relay included Matt Kinney and their time ranked them third in the United States in their age group.
“It was an awesome experience,” says Calhoun. “I swam my little heart out.”
Just like fellow DC Aquatics swimmer Craig Franz, Calhoun has also found success in open water swimming and he competes in races along the California coast. Calhoun made the trek to Stockholm last year for the EuroGames with his new teammates and will join them again at the Sin City Shootout in Vegas and/or the upcoming World Out Games in Miami next year.
“Swimming puts balance in my life and helps me control my angst,” Calhoun says. “I am really enjoying being a part of this convivial and cohesive adult team.”