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Lakeview, Wrigleyville, Northalsted

For Decades, The Chicago Smelts Have Been Shattering Stereotypes With Every Backstroke: ‘We’re The Gay Swim Team, And We Kicked Your A–‘

The Chicago Smelts offered talented LGBTQ athletes a safe place to swim in the less tolerant '80s. And that mission remains today.

In the early 1990s the Smelts joined with Frontrunners and Windy City Cycling, a gay bikers group in what was called the Smelts Triathlon Weekend. It was organized to unite gay triathletes and triathlon relay teams in a visible way within the very large Chicago Triathlon.
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LAKEVIEW — In 1988, Ross Patronsky was the only Masters swimmer at Lakeview’s Gill Park, often swimming laps with the pool to himself.

Then, he met the Smelts.

The Chicago Smelts, which jokingly stood for “Sensitive Men et Lesbians Together Swimming,” was a mostly gay and lesbian advanced swim club — and they were seeking a home for regular practices.

Patronsky was the only one using the dedicated pool time, and instead of keeping the pool divided between him and the rest of the Smelts, he just joined the team. The club was almost exclusively gay men and Patronsky at first, but now includes many more women, as well as a few more straight swimmers.

For more than 30 years, the Smelts have competed in U.S. Masters Swimming events around Chicagoland and the Midwest and built community around a love of the sport. Masters is a membership-based nonprofit that hosts sanctioned events and supports more than 1,500 swimming clubs around the country. The team, which averages around 150 members per year, welcomes swimmers of all abilities, from beginners to veteran triathletes to former Olympic hopefuls.

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Smelts members Russ Klettke, Tom Ernsting, Seth Hoff in 1993.

Bradley Dineen, a swimmer who has been with the Smelts for 29 years, describes how in the early days, the lack of legal protections for LGBTQ individuals led to logistical challenges. On the membership form, the Smelts would leave alternative addresses or P.O. Box numbers, and made sure they could not be reached at work.

“If you had parents or landlords that would screen your mail for something LGBT, you could be fired or kicked out of your home,” Dineen said. “It’s so different from our membership now, where most people don’t even second guess or think anything of that.”

In August of 1992, 162 gay and lesbian athletes affiliated with the Smelts participated in the Chicago Sun-Times Triathlon, many with rainbows painted on their bodies, and one Smelts-affiliated squad won the men’s open relay. But a September 1992 article from the Windy City Times details how sponsors prevented the victorious team from talking to the crowd about fighting homophobia, and how the Sun-Times refused to print their team name, the “Quick Queers.”

Steve Gilberg, a former Smelts co-chair and current substitute coach who has been with the team on and off for 20 years, competed alongside his fellow Smelts at the 1994 Gay Games in New York. Gilberg, who like many Smelts, could not be out at work at the time or tell his colleagues he was swimming at the games.

“I remember walking around New York in the Village or Chelsea, and you’d see people walking around with medals around their necks,” he says. “You could go up to anybody and congratulate them and strike up a conversation. It really was beautiful.”

More recently, the Smelts took the title of Illinois Masters State Champions four seasons in a row, from 2015 to 2018. For Gilberg, that first state championship was a moving experience, and helped cement his view of participating on the team as a form of activism.

“Here we are, everybody knows we’re the gay swim team, and we kicked your ass,” he said. “That showed the other 800 people at the pool who we were. If they thought we were any different than hard, tough swimmers, they definitely learned otherwise.”

Some members of the Chicago Smelts today.

Activism and community engagement outside of competition have been part of the Smelts story since the beginning.

Members of the Smelts attended the March on Washington for Lesbian, Gay and Bi Equal Rights and Liberation in 1993. Closer to home, the Smelts have held fundraisers since the 1990s, starting with the 1991 Swim Your Heart Out Valentine’s Day swim-a-thon event supporting the AIDS Alternative Health Project.

“It was publicized to the whole Masters community so you got swimmers of all stripes involved, using something they loved to do to support the LGBT community,” Patronsky said.

The Smelts also supported Open Hand Chicago, an organization which served hot meals to the doors of Chicagoans living with HIV/AIDS. Open Hand has since evolved into Vital Bridges, a nutrition and food pantry program operating under the Heartland Alliance umbrella.

According to the Smelts’ website, other beneficiaries for events and fundraisers have included Stop AIDS Chicago, The Chicago Women’s AIDS Project, The AIDS Alternative Health Project, AIDS Legal Council and The Women’s Program at Howard Brown Health Center.

“It was a common mission,” Dineen said. “That was the good thing about everyone getting involved and coming together. Everybody is a different level of swimmer. We’ve had former Olympians swim on our team and people who are excited when they can survive a whole practice. This brings everyone together.”

Gilberg said that community service is not in the official Smelts charter, but a passion of the swimmers themselves. With a team that ranges from 100 to 200 swimmers and an active Facebook group, the members can reach each other and mobilize quickly, citing Smelts who attended the Women’s March in Chicago recently as an example.

“It’s the people who want to be out there and stand up for what they believe in,” he said.

The Smelts will be busy this summer, during the remainder of Pride Month and beyond. Runners can catch them at their water station during the Proud to Run races at Montrose Harbor on Saturday and the next day marching in the Chicago Pride Parade. On the competitive side, the team will participate in open water swims throughout Wisconsin and the Midwest at large, and Patronsky said several members will compete in triathlons over the summer.

Patronsky said interested swimmers can join them for practice on Saturday mornings at Gill Park or later in the summer at Holstein Park. Newcomers of all ages, skill levels and abilities are welcome, but are required to fill out the visitors’ form on the team’s website.

The competitive spirit and ethos of service activism are essential to the Smelts, but so is the sense of community itself.

There’s always been a rich social life around the team. Gilberg and his teammates go out to breakfast every Saturday. The Smelts participated in an annual Halloween costume contest throughout the 1990s, with up to 30 or 40 members dressing elaborately together, with themes like Miss America contestants or Cruella De Vil and the 101 Dalmatians. Patronsky fondly recalls his first time hosting “Smeltsgiving,” the team’s annual potluck Thanksgiving celebration.

“One of the other Smelts brought the turkey,” he said. “I’m not much of a partier, but it was nice to be with people I shared something with.”

In his 29 years swimming with the Smelts, Dineen has made a number of lifelong friends. Some have moved to other parts of the world; others still share a lane with him at practice. Gilberg, too, described the family formed by the team, and how occasionally, young swimmers will find in the Smelts the first place they can have a safe, affirming coming out experience.

“Within two years of hanging out with the team and getting comfortable with who they are as a person and not being judged, it allows them the freedom to come out,” he said. “It’s lovely to see that.”

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