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Blade All Stars spotlight: ballroom dancers enjoy training, competition

Duo brought home three medals from ’18 Paris Gay Games

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competitive dancesport, gay news, Washington Blade
Allesandro Ghidini (left) and Craig Louisy are off to a strong start a year into their training. (Photo courtesy Ghidini/Louisy)

This week in the Washington Blade’s All Star series, we shine a spotlight on two LGBT athletes who are navigating their way through the costumes, music and theatrics of competitive dancesport.

Growing up in Milan, Italy, Alessandro Ghidini was drawn to sports that involved water. He competed in swimming and water polo before joining the varsity Olympic kayaking team at the University of Milan.

His studies to become an obstetrician-gynecologist brought him to the United States where he attended Yale for five years along with a fellowship in New York.

After arriving in D.C. in 1994, he returned to the water as a rower with the D.C. Strokes Rowing Club. Looking for something new, Ghidini joined a group that gave instruction in American Style ballroom dancing.

“It was a good match for me. As a physician, I am trained for perfection and polish,” Ghidini says. “Dancing takes coordination, balance and an awareness of muscles. It’s very meticulous as is stitching up a patient.”

Two years ago, Ghidini met coach Terry Chasteen of DanceSport Dupont Circle and began training in the International Style of ballroom dancing. A plan was formed to compete in the 2018 Gay Games in Paris, but finding the right partner proved difficult.

Chasteen was line dancing with the D.C. Rawhides and spotted a possibility in the form of Craig Louisy. A partnership was formed with all dance training pointed toward competing in Paris.

Louisy grew up in Saint Lucia and played multiple sports including tennis, karate, basketball and volleyball. Looking for a better life and education, he arrived in the D.C. area to attend Howard University. After medical school at Temple University in Philadelphia, he returned to the area for stints at Washington Hospital Center and the University of Maryland at Baltimore.

Louisy accepted a position as a locum tenens surgeon (traveling surgeon) and spent the next several years traveling through Maryland, South Dakota, Hawaii and North Carolina.

“Traveling so much made me feel disconnected. I couldn’t forge any lasting friendships and I knew it was time to establish some roots,” Louisy says. “When I returned to D.C., I joined the D.C. Rawhides. I always imagined myself on a stage, but my medical career took me in a different direction. The thoughts of dancing and performing were still a part of me.”

Ghidini and Louisy secured their dance steps and began the long hours of training to perfect them under Chasteen’s watchful eye. Not all dancesport competitions accept same-sex couples, so they selected welcoming competitions in Bethesda, New York and Columbus as tune-ups for Paris.

“The competitions were fun, challenging and brought out my competitive side,” Louisy says. “DanceSport has dusted off different parts of my brain and has given me the exact thing I was looking for — social interaction and fun.”

The pair arrived at the Paris Gay Games last August ready for their moment to perform on the international stage. They were entered in the Standard (waltz, tango and quick-step) and Latin (rhumba, jive and cha cha) categories.

When the dust settled, they had captured two silver medals and a bronze.

“It was such a sense of accomplishment after a year of practicing our steps and thinking about shoes, costumes and details,” Ghidini says. “The parade of athletes at the Gay Games opening ceremonies blew me away. Seeing athletes from anti-LGBT countries such as Cuba and Algeria brought tears to my eyes. I had family members there, including my husband, cheering us on. We were interviewed by French television stations and I felt so welcome.”

Louisy agrees. 

“It was everything I imagined it would be — an international convening of the LGBT community. It was a very positive environment and you could feel the energy of it,” Louisy says. “It made me proud to be gay and athletic; like I was exposing it to the world that our community comes in all shapes, sizes and colors. It felt important, like I was doing my civic duty.”

With such a great experience behind them, the pair are now training for the upcoming EuroGames in July in Rome.

“After losing our virginity in regard to competing in international sports, I am totally game to keep this going,” Ghidini says. “But it takes two to tango.”

Louisy says he’s in it for the long haul. 

“We made a lot of friends from other countries and learned techniques from each other,” Louisy says. “It has given me structure and resulted in only positive things.”

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Out athletes going for gold

New milestones in queer representation at Tokyo Olympics

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Michael Gunning narrowly missed out on qualifying for this year’s Olympic Games. (Photo courtesy Gunning)

The 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games begin on June 23, with competitions continuing through Aug. 8. The Games were postponed in March 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

For many aspiring Olympians, the quadrennial event is the culmination of a lifetime of sacrifices to compete against the best athletes in the world while representing their country on an international stage.

The road to get there is filled with obstacles and this Olympic cycle produced one more barrier in the form of training disruptions that happened in almost every sport.

After all the dust settled during the qualifying process, 627 athletes were named to Team USA. More than 30 of those athletes are out members of the LGBTQ community. 

Regarding the other countries competing, according to a recent story by Outsports, “At least 142 publicly out gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer and nonbinary athletes are headed to Tokyo for the Summer Olympic Games.”

Flashback to the 2016 Rio Olympic Games when a correspondent from The Daily Beast used hook-up apps such as Bumble, Tindr, Grindr, and Jack’d to message gay athletes. His published story went on to describe the athletes, creating potentially dangerous situations for the athletes from countries with high anti-LGBTQ violence rates.

What should we expect from the environment in Japan? 

There have been a handful of Japanese athletes who have come out recently but for the most part, they are competing in other countries – notably trans soccer star Kumi Yokoyama who plays for the Washington Spirit and out lesbian Shiho Shimoyamada who plays soccer for SV Meppen in Germany.

LGBTQ activists in Japan were hoping that the worldwide attention on the Tokyo Olympics would help push their ruling Liberal Democratic Party to pass EqualityActJapan banning discrimination against LGBTQ people. Their legislature went into recess without passing the measure.

That setback did not stop Pride House Tokyo Legacy from opening in October 2020 in Shinjuku, Tokyo. It will serve as a permanent LGBTQ support center where individuals can feel safe and at home.

Pride House Tokyo Legacy has been authorized as part of the Tokyo 2020 Official Program by the Tokyo Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games along with full support from the International Olympic Committee. Those endorsements make it the first Pride House worldwide to achieve this status.

Visibility for the LGBTQ community is important for a variety of reasons and in the sports world, we tend to point to LGBTQ athletes as role models for younger generations. 

Over the next few weeks we will bear witness to the first transgender athlete to compete in Laurel Hubbard as a weightlifter for Team New Zealand. 

We will watch lesbian triple jumper Yulimar Rojas compete and carry the flag for her country of Venezuela in the Parade of Nations. 

And we will sit enthralled as gay British Olympic diver Tom Daley is cheered on by his three-year-old son Robbie as he attempts to medal again in his fourth Olympics.

The last time the Blade checked in with out Tongan swimmer Amini Fonua, he was in heavy training to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and struggling with the funding needed to complete that journey.

Fonua was one of the Olympic athletes that spoke out against The Daily Beast story from 2016, which helped to get the story retracted, with an apology. It was the first instance where the International Olympic Committee, which also chimed in, had ever acknowledged an LGBTQ presence. 

Amini Fonua qualified for his third Olympics this year. (Photo courtesy Fonua)

When the pandemic hit, Fonua’s training pool closed and his income from teaching swimming lessons dried up. In an effort to be closer to his training group, New York Athletic Club, he moved from New Jersey to New York City mid-pandemic.

To stay in shape, he ramped up his time spent on weight training, running, biking, and yoga.

“The pandemic changed a lot of things for all of us,” says Fonua. “This past year has been about survival, and I have done my best with what I have been given.”

Eventually pools opened back up with limits on swimmers per lane and time spent in the water. Fonua was only allowed four 45-minute swim practices per week, which is well below the amount of time that elite swimmers spend in the pool.

He also found employment with Fitter and Faster Swim Camps with all of his travel to swim camps completed by train to minimize his exposure to the virus. 

As of May 2021, Fonua was not the top Tongan swimmer that would be selected for the Olympic team. He was also facing swim meet entry barriers due to COVID restrictions to even compete for a spot on the team.

In smaller nations and those with developing swim programs, the international federation for swimming, FINA, and the International Olympic Committee allow for universalityentries into the Olympics. 

The universality system allows a nation with no Olympic swimming qualifier to enter up to one man and one woman in the Olympics. The two swimmers are chosen based on FINA points, which are calculated using a cubic curve.

Fonua received a last minute entry to the Atlanta Classic swim meet on May 14 where he would have one last shot to make the team. He threw down a time in the 100 meter breaststroke that moved him past the top Tongan swimmer based on FINA points and qualified him for his third Olympics.

For this Olympic experience, Fonua will be thinking about what his father always says to him regarding sports — be competitive, do your best, and have fun.

“I will be staying in the Olympic Village but there won’t be any Grindr this time because I am in love. I will be racing on the 24th and still hope to walk in the Parade of Nations the night before,” Fonua says. “My mom is the team manager for the Tongan swim team, and I am looking forward to cups of tea with her and visiting Pride House Tokyo. I know it will be different this time because of COVID, but there is nothing like experiencing a city hosting the Olympics.”

When you receive an email from out swimmer Michael Gunning, the signature line says Professional Athlete. He laughs when asked about it and says it is a continuation of what he used to write on his school essays — Michael Gunning, The Swimmer.

Gunning, who currently trains in Manchester, England, became fully committed to swimming at age 13 when he won a national competition in England. A few years later he was representing Great Britain on their junior national team.

“We have all heard that Black people don’t swim, and I wanted to prove it could be done,” says Gunning. “I began chasing those Olympic dreams at every event I swam in.”

Despite swimming well in the 200 meter butterfly in the qualifying trials for the 2014 Commonwealth Games, he was left off the Great Britain team.

Jamaica reached out and said they would love for Gunning to swim for them (his father was born in Jamaica). He represented the country for the first time at the 2017 World Championships in Budapest and again at the 2019 World Championships in Gwangju.

“I was really on the fence before saying yes. I felt like I wasn’t being taken seriously in the UK and this was an opportunity to do my bit and inspire,” Gunning says. “That first experience in Budapest was amazing. The Jamaican team accepted me, and I finally felt good enough.”

When the Blade last checked in with Gunning, he was pointing toward the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. At that time, he was the top Jamaican point earner if it came down to a FINA universality selection for the Olympics.

Then the pandemic hit. Gunning was out of the water for more than 100 days and scrambling to stay in shape with dryland training.

“Those were dark and desperate times,” says Gunning. “Once I was able to get back in the water, I trained by myself for 20 weeks.”

With COVID barriers for training and competitions, Gunning knew all along that another Jamaican swimmer could top his FINA points. 

And then it happened. 

FINA adjusted their earned points for the 200 meter butterfly downward and another swimmer earned more points in the 200 meter IM.

Gunning had one last shot in June at a meet in Glasgow but did not swim near his best times. He received the news earlier this month that he was not selected for the team.

“Swimming shapes you as a person. Whether you reach your end goals or not, you are so much stronger for it. I don’t regret any of the hard work I put in,” Gunning says. “Swimming prompted me to come out – swimming gave me that. We still need diversity and inclusion, especially at the grass roots level. I want to be that representation.”

With the news being so fresh, Gunning is unclear on his long term path in the pool. He will continue to teach swimming and field offers that come his way. Next year, he will be a Pride House ambassador at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.

“The Olympics make role models, and I am excited to support and cheer for the LGBTQ athletes who are competing,” says Gunning. “For now, I am going to live every day, one day at a time, being myself and being authentic.”

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Nashville Predator prospect Luke Prokop comes out as gay

“I am no longer scared to hide who I am. Today I am proud to publicly tell everyone that I am gay. It has been quite the journey […]”

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Luke Prokop via his Instagram Account

NASHVILLE – In an Instagram post Monday, Nashville Predator prospect Luke Prokop announced that he is gay. His announcement was applauded by the National Hockey League’s Commissioner Gary Bettman who said in part, ” I want to thank him for sharing his truth and being so brave.” Prokop is the first active NHL player under contract to come out.

The 19-year-old 6 foot 4 inch defenseman player is originally from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, and has played the past four seasons with the Western Hockey League before the Predators selected him as the 73rd overall pick in the 2020 NHL Draft.

“While the past year and a half has been crazy, it has also given me the chance to find my true self,” Prokop wrote. “I am no longer scared to hide who I am. Today I am proud to publicly tell everyone that I am gay.

“It has been quite the journey to get to this point in my life, but I could not be happier with my decision to come out. From a young age I have dreamed of being an NHL player, and I believe that living my authentic life will allow me to bring my whole self to the rink and improve my chances of fulfilling my dreams.”

“The Nashville Predators organization is proud of Luke for the courage he is displaying in coming out today and we will support him unequivocally in the days, weeks, and years to come as he continues to develop as a prospect,” the team tweeted.

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Lesbian Olympian rocks the basketball court, while doing wheelies

“That’s what I love- we get the opportunity to change perceptions & change ideas of what disability should look like.”

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Screenshot of It Gets Better profile of Courtney Ryan via YouTube

TUCSON, Az. – The global audience of the It Gets Better Project received a glimpse into the lives of LGBTQ+ athletes who won’t let setbacks keep them from achieving their dreams in its new series “Passion. Power. Performance,” which streamed last month.

The docu-series shares inspirational stories behind proud LGBTQ+ athletes who are out and training for the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, which episode one featured Arizona-based paralympic basketball player for Team USA, Courtney Ryan.

“I want to be an inspiration because you see me on the court doing some crazy tricks, tilting in a chair, doing all of this stuff that you wouldn’t expect,” Ryan said. “That’s what I love about wheelchair basketball — we get the opportunity to change perceptions and change ideas of what disability should look like. We aren’t fragile. We are competitors, and we’re ready to prove that,” she added.

Out and Training for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020: Sports have always been part of Ryan’s life – and that didn’t change after she became paraplegic. Watch how with the support of her sister, she came out, and is changing perceptions of disability.

Courtney’s Journey to Wheelchair Basketball for TEAM USA | Passion, Power, Performance WATCH:

For more information, visit www.itgetsbetter.org. Join the conversation on social media and be sure to follow the It Gets Better Project on YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok.

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