The life aquatic

  • by Jim Provenzano
  • Tuesday June 20, 2006
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Although Bay Area swimmers were among the largest contingent of competitors at the first two Gay Games, it wasn't until a few months after Gay Games II in 1986 that the then-named San Francisco Recreation and Parks Department Tsunami Gay and Lesbian Masters Swim Club was founded.

The name Tsunami, coined by one of the original members, costume designer John Harry "Cayenne" Bonck, has become the simpler name to those familiar with its reputation as the winningest LGBT swim club in the world.

Now in its 20th year, Tsunami has grown branches that involve water polo and synchronized swimming teams. From long to short races and relays, Tsunami swimmers annually fill the lanes at International Gay and Lesbian Aquatics championships, and every four years at the Gay Games.

One Tsunami swimmer headed to Chicago for the seventh Games (to be held July 15-22) is 11-year veteran Lisa Congdon.

Born in upstate New York, Congdon moved to San Jose, California as a child with her family, and started swimming when she was 8 years old.

That began many years of youth competitions, but age isn't a factor in her skill level. "I swim faster now than when I was in high school," said Congdon, 38, who credits more personal dedication and better coaching as part of her success.

A sometime president of Tsunami (in 1998 and 2004), Congdon is also one of five coaches on the team who alternate responsibilities on several practice nights, most of which are held at Hamilton Pool.

Each member coach has a different specialty, but Congdon said, "One of the reasons they hired me is that I'm a woman, and we want to maintain a female presence on the team. Having a female coach has increased the presence of women. We've done a lot to try to recruit women, and there is a female presence, but I'm perfectly fine with whomever comes to practice."

Along with other coaches Steve Martel, Bjorn Holton, Waifa Chau, and Casey Cheung, Tsunami will send nearly 50 swimmers to Chicago's Gay Games VII. Congdon said that about nine athletes will also compete in Montreal's Outgames.

Diverse age ranges span the spectrum of the team's roster, said Congdon, as do their interests and skill levels. "You've got people who don't compete, and some who do seriously. For some people, it's just fun. They could care less about swim records."

Most see improvement in their swimming in a supportive group environment. "I think everyone cares about their individual times. But they are there to have fun, enjoy themselves and make friends."

Congdon has been on relay teams that have broken masters swim records, and is looking forward to swimming against a few rivals from other teams. "There are certain women that, after 10 years swimming, I've gotten to know."

Other swimmers, like Tsunami co-founder Chris Meier-Windes, have switched to triathlon for Chicago's Games.

After next month's Gay Games, next year the annual IGLA championship takes place in Paris. "A lot of people may go," said Congdon. "As soon as Chicago's done, they start thinking about it. The year passes by quickly, and you have to make plans."

Congdon said that while some may take a break and alter their training schedules, she and others have learned to break up their workouts with cross-training in a gym.

"I used to only swim five to six days a week, 4,000 yards a day, and I'd be sore afterwards," said Congdon. "Swimming every day can get boring."

Recently, Congdon began working on her core [abdominals], and found a good deal of improvement. "You need your abs and obliques to swim well, but swimming doesn't work those muscles." Working with a trainer – while not developing muscle bulk, swimmers have to be flexible – and some treadmill fast-walking has helped.

In Chicago, Congdon will compete in the freestyle 50-, 100-, 400-, 800-, and 1500-meter races. A former gold medalist in the 200-meter butterfly, Congdon has taken a break from that event.

Along with several IGLA medals is one victory she never really obtained. When she won a gold medal in Amsterdam's Gay Games V, organizers claimed they would send medals to athletes. But after a massive budget disaster, she – and many others – never received one.

Still, it's not about medals, said Congdon, but the self-improvement and community she's found. Asked to tally her numerous swimming records, Congdon instead recalls a few overall accomplishments, such as being the most medaled female athlete at IGLA 2003, held at Stanford University and hosted by Tsunami.

Despite admitting that she sometimes gets "super nervous" before a swim meet, Congdon said that she finds comfort in the club. "Tsunami has been the most stable, healthy, positive thing in my life in the past 11 years."

Along with swimming, fundraisers play a big part of the club's activities. Given its name, it was only fitting that the group raised thousands of dollars in a swim-a-thon for victims of the Southeast Asian tsunami disaster of December 2004. They've also raised funds for local AIDS and LGBT charities.

"We even recently rewrote the club's mission statement to include an aspect of giving to our regular activities," said Congdon. Pride attendees can give back by stopping by Tsunami's beer and beverage booth in Civic Center on Sunday.

Swimmer Lisa Congdon is heading to Chicago. Photo: Rick Gerharter

One of a few surviving original members of Tsunami, Steve Murray may be familiar to local theatre fans as the showman behind the acclaimed Viva Variety series.

Murray, 51, came to San Francisco in 1978. The former high school swimmer, raised in Rochester, New York, began swimming competitively at age 4, and continued until age 16, before stopping for several years.

Murray said he came to the Bay Area "to become a Grateful Dead hippie." Several years – and a few acid trips – later, Murray was surprised to see plans for a gay sports event, and signed up for the second Gay Games.

"I thought I would never again be able to do sports," said Murray. "Nobody in the gay community would talk about it or watch sports. I was always a jock at heart, so I was really happy to find other people who were into sports."

Despite the growth of the LGBT sports movement, 1986 to 1990 was also a tragic time in San Francisco as the AIDS epidemic took its toll on thousands. Murray believes sports provided a great outlet. "It was good to do something positive."

He also played flag football on a team with Tom Waddell, the founder of the Gay Games. "We would often play against a team of cops, and they would love to kick our asses. It was good to be competitive."

Murray estimates that 30-40 Tsunami men have died of HIV/AIDS related illnesses, including Tsunami co-founder Rick Windes, whom Murray recalls with fondness. "He was very soft-spoken, but he did so much of the work behind the scenes. We all owe him a lot."

Murray later became active in the first Bay Area chapter of ACT UP. But he is most known for his now-50 presentations of the Viva Variety performing arts shows, as well as 20 other independent productions, comedy shows, and plays.

His next project is producing a live version of the Z-grade Joan Crawford film Trog. The actress' costar is a man in a prehistoric ape costume. "It's definitely terrible," Murray admits. "But we're just gonna play it for fun."

Speaking of fun, Murray said that Tsunami will once again participate in the festive Pink Flamingo competition. The venerable costumed aquatics show, where teams around the world vie for increasingly silly thematic achievements at Gay Games and IGLA tournaments, has become more lavish since its early days.

"We have an idea of what we will do for this one, even if it's sloppy." Murray predicts that, "Team Paris always does something extremely emotional and beautiful. New York always does something incredible."

Having participated in many IGLA Pink Flamingos as well, Murray recalls one year in particular in San Diego. "I was in a wedding dress in high heels, in the water. The dress got so waterlogged, I almost drowned."

In between the fun, Murray has had some serious victories. In Amsterdam's Gay Games V, Murray won a silver medal in a relay and a bronze in the 200-meter butterfly (unlike Congdon, he got his medals).

Chicago will be his sixth Gay Games, and Murray will compete in five individual events – 400- and 200-meter individual medleys, the 200-meter backstroke, 200-meter butterfly, and the 100-meter butterfly.

Asked if he's feeling competitive, he said, "At the Gay Games, there is no non-competitive age group, until you get into your 70s. I always swim for personal best, and I swim just because I love it. I don't care about winning, but it's nice if I do."