EDGE goes to the Gay Games, Part 2: Going for the gold in Cologne

by Roger Brigham

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Tuesday September 7, 2010

EDGE published part one of this column on Tuesday, Aug. 31.

Four years ago my friend Gene Dermody gave a rousing speech to the 100 or so wrestlers gathered in Chicago. He told them that the wrestlers who had their glory days in high school and college were welcome-but the Gay Games weren't there for them. He said the Games are there so that people who never had a chance for whatever reason-whether they were afraid of dealing with their sexuality as adolescents, or thought they could never compete because they were queer, or just never saw sports as possible for them-could have the opportunity to train, to bring out the best in themselves, to learn, and to compete with respect.

The wrestlers all took the message to heart in 2006, a day I found myself coaching match after match, giving encouragement and advice. I rode an emotional high all day long helping my teammates focus and succeed. In my 42 years in the sport, it was one of the greatest days of my life.

I won gold that day, something I would have thought impossible a handful of years earlier. I had dual hip replacement surgery in 2001 and for five years had been hobbling around on a pair of titanium rods. Unable to run anymore and therefore no longer able to enjoy rugby, soccer, softball or any of the other run-based recreational sports I had enjoyed as an adult, I decided in late 2003 to return to the sport of my adolescence: wrestling. It took me nearly two years to figure out how to modify my footwork to suit my purposes and a bit longer to resurrect my moves, but in 2004 I became the first person in history to compete in a USA Wrestling tournament on artificial hips.

All possible because of my club, Golden Gate Wrestling, which was formed to host the first two Gay Games. It was as though Dr. Tom Waddell had reached out through the years to leave me this gift for when I needed it most. I'm gay but I didn't go to Golden Gate because it was gay; I went because they were patient with an aging, disabled wrestler. They brought out the best in me.

So that day in Chicago was not an artistic, athletic success-a pretty boring match to watch except when I got head-butted and bled all over the place, but it was a triumph of will and stamina.

This year in Cologne was a different story. My husband Eduardo, who made his sports debut at the 2006 Games with a silver medal in martial arts, was home this go round taking care of our dogs. I was rooming with 17 other grapplers on the east side of Cologne, a Spartan dormitory setting suitable to our minimalist needs. I was responsible with making sure things ran smoothly, liaising with tournament officials, and coaching my teammates. And, my health markedly worse than it had been four years earlier, restricting my ability to train on the mat, made it questionable that I would get on the mat at all on tournament day. And if I did, I had already promised my significant other that it would be the last match of my career. So it was now and then never.

The day of my tournament, I was dizzy and my right hip was painful and weak. I had concentrated on building up my leg strength coming into Cologne, but I can never tell when one or the other is going to go on the fritz. This would not be my day for victory.

My two matches went by in a blur. I was matched against two very experienced veteran wrestlers on a mission and they deserved the wins. The second match ended with a ferocious cross face that fractured my nose. I went down tough, but I went down.

Twenty years ago, a loss like that would have torn me up. But this time there was no time to grieve: I had earned my team one point, I got to coach all of my teammates and all of them won, and the tournament, though small (40 wrestlers) ran well and brought together wrestlers from Australia to Europe who had not had a chance to face each other for eight years.

Better for me was watching the performances of wrestlers I have worked with from other clubs the past seven years: athletes who entered wrestling filled with doubts who were now cranking out successful, technical wrestling--confident wrestling. Better for me were the quiet moments when they thanked me for sharing my knowledge, for encouraging them through the years.

It was a feeling of mutual respect, of gratitude, of appreciation, of camaraderie on par with the greatest moments in my varsity career. Sports doesn't get more powerful than that.

A moment worthy of Olympus, but not for the gods or the elite. For everyone.

My track friend from Ireland was aglow with the thrill of it all was right: every gay person should do this.

My Gay Games week did not end with the closing ceremonies, another rainy evening of athletes gathered for a party. As a delegate from Wrestlers Without Borders I had to attend the annual meeting of the Federation of Gay Games the next day. Not so exhilarating: the last thing you want to do after feasting on hot dogs is to go to work in the hot dog factory. The split caused by the Montreal walk-out half a decade ago still has some healing to go, and there is some intense infighting to keep the Gay Games mission and brand alive.

But I did have one last reason to celebrate. Gay Games VIII was the first Gay Games to have random drug-testing in all sports. There are so many philosophical and technical flaws in drug-testing and it is so cost prohibitive that no other major recreational sports event employs it. But Games Cologne employed a random-testing policy without community dialogue, including the positive athletes who sometimes rely on medications banned by sports drug-testing authorities. In wrestling we were so concerned that we decided before the tournament that if anyone was called for testing whom could not take the test, none of us would comply.

The day after closing ceremonies, the FGG voted overwhelmingly not ever to have random across-the-board testing in the Gay Games.

The Gay Games are, after all, for everyone.

Roger Brigham, a freelance writer and communications consultant, is the San Francisco Editor of EDGE. He lives in Oakland with his husband, Eduardo.

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