Many of the LGBT sports teams in D.C. count same-sex couples as members of their clubs. Some joined the team together and others became a couple after first being teammates.
Meet two LGBT couples who have woven sports into the lives they are sharing. Not only are they benefitting their own health and well-being, they are sharing it with their partner.
Sheila O’Sullivan grew up in Novi, Mich., where soccer was her sport of choice. She attended high school in England and added rowing as her spring sport.
Back in the States, she graduated from the Coast Guard Academy in Connecticut in 2000. She coached rowing on Sammamish Lake in Washington before heading to grad school at Carnegie Mellon University.
Canonsburg, Pa. was home to Gretchen O’Sullivan where she played softball and tennis in high school. She attended Allegheny College and was a member of the orchestra. A stint with AmeriCorps was followed by grad school at Carnegie Mellon.
The pair became a couple after meeting at grad school in Pittsburgh. Sheila would graduate first in 2007 and leave to work with the Peace Corps before moving to D.C. in 2009 where she joined the club program of the DC Strokes Rowing Club.
“After she left I joined the learn to row program with Three Rivers Rowing in Pittsburgh,” says Gretchen. “It was all because of Sheila. I never would have thought of rowing otherwise.”
Gretchen came to D.C. the following year and started with the DC Strokes novice program. She eventually joined Sheila in the club program and they often ended up in the same boat.
“She would get frustrated with me, but the overall experience was great,” says Sheila. “It’s great being outside and working as a team. We met our core group of friends with the Strokes and even if we are not rowing, they remain in our lives.”
“She was only trying to help me when we were in a boat together, but it was sometimes stressful,” Gretchen says. “Otherwise it was wonderful and there was great energy. Our drives back and forth to practice were always fun.”
Life started getting in the way for the pair and they began swapping rowing seasons to be supportive of who had the time to row. There was work, a new puppy, a new house, and they got married in the spring of 2013.
Both were competing in regattas – Sheila moved up to the competitive program and rowed at Stonewall, Charm City Sprints and the Head of the Hooch in Tennessee; Gretchen at the 2014 Gay Games in Cleveland where she won medals of each color.
Gretchen was trying to get pregnant in 2015 which meant that it was Sheila’s turn to row again. Their baby was born in late 2016 and Sheila started training for a new job with the Park Police. Gretchen is working as a site coordinator with a national nonprofit. Both are currently not rowing but are itching to get back in the boat.
“I really wanted to stay involved, so I am serving on the DC Strokes board as secretary,” says Gretchen. “Rowing is really for everyone and you can adapt it to your own needs. I would love for her to row again and I also see it for myself on the horizon.”
“I love that it is something you can come back to at any age and I am inspired by rowers that are older,” Sheila says. “Rowing is a passion of mine and it will be a lifetime sport for me.”
Syracuse, N.Y. native Fred Dever grew up competing in swimming and water polo through high school. He was an NCAA Division I swimmer at Marist College for four years and captained in his final year. On the side, he lifeguarded and coached swimming and water polo.
His work in pharmaceutical sales brought him to D.C. in 1995 and he was reluctant to join DC Aquatics Club because he didn’t think a gay team would be serious.
“I joined the team in 2002 and it was great getting back into organized workouts and making new friends,” says Fred. “It’s super rewarding, competitive, and everything you can wish for as a gay athlete.”
Eric Czander started swimming year around at age nine while growing up in Westfield, N.J. He swam for four years as an NCAA Division I athlete at Vanderbilt University. His education continued at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School and Emory University School of Medicine for his Neurology residency.
He signed on for five years in the Navy hoping that the military lifestyle would prevent him from coming out. Before his duty began, he joined masters swimming and helped form a gay team in Atlanta where he came out in 1993. His last two years in the military brought him to D.C. where he joined DC Aquatics in 1998.
Fred and Eric met on the team and have spent the last 16 years sharing their lives with a healthy dose of swimming, triathlons and running.
“It helps with motivation to have someone to go to practice with and just having someone by your side,” says Eric. “It’s nice to be able to bounce things off each other. We are each other’s biggest motivator and biggest critic.”
“I like the way it feels having sports in our lives,” Fred says. “I would be a slacker if it wasn’t for Eric. He is much more driven than I am.”
Fred and Eric are the same age and compete in the same age group in swimming, though not in the same events. They are also of the same ability and purposefully don’t train in the same lane at practice.
“There is a little competitiveness in practice even though we don’t swim the same events,” Eric says. “Never harmful though, always healthy. Both of us have grown and learned from each other.”
“Sometimes I just want my own space, so I can be silly with our other teammates,” adds Fred.
In addition to competitive swimming, Fred and Eric have also completed running marathons and triathlons together. Eric had been competing in them for years before meeting Fred and brought him into the sports.
“My first marathon in D.C. was cancelled and Eric pushed me to run the St. Louis Marathon,” says Fred. “We always make sure the other one is safe in our races. Someone died in a recent open water race we were in and I ended up in the medical tent at the Boston Marathon. Each race starts with “I love you, be safe.”’
“When he started doing road running and triathlons, I was beating him at first and then he started beating me,” says Eric. “We try not to race next to each other, but our times are very similar. It’s good motivation.”
Coming up for the pair is a trip to Paris for Gay Games X in August where they both will be swimming eight events in the pool.
“Swimming is all about family and connections,” Fred says. “Our DC Aquatics teammates are our family.”
“It’s awesome to explore new cities and cultures together,” Eric says. “Plus, I can’t wait for Fred to butcher the French language.”