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Orca Swim Team History

Orca-Swim-Team-30th-Birthday-CupcakeIf you lived in Seattle before 1980,there were very few gay organizations – i.e.,2 sports clubs (bowling and softball) and a singing group (Men’s Chorus).  Things started to change in 1982,when a former U.S. Olympic Team Decathlete  – Dr. Tom Waddell – founded the “Gay Olympic Games,” an 11-sport competition held in San Francisco which attracted 1300 men and women.  Swimmer Dana Cox attended the Games and returned to Seattle to promote an informal gay swim at the Queen Anne Pool.  One of the regulars at this informal swim was Rick Peterson.

In 1984, Rick, Dana, John Horman, Bruce Erickson,and others formed the “Emerald City Orca Swim Club” (later changed to “Orca Swim Club”).  For the remainder of the 1980’s,the Orcas had roughly 35 members (including 10 women) who typically swam several times a week,initially in Queen Anne, and later at Medger Evers.  The Orcas hosted their first meet (1985),which included a “silly relay” the Orcas dubbed as the “Pink Flamingo.”  Over the next 2 decades, the Pink Flamingo morphed into an elaborate water/dance performance that would be a staple at international gay swim meets.

Throughout the 1980’s,the Orcas helped build a gay sports community,both locally and internationally.  In 1986,, Rick Peterson co-founded Team Seattle (along with racquetball player Danette Leonhardi),a gay sports network which today has roughly 15 member teams.  That same year, Rick helped start IGLA (“International Gay and Lesbian Aquatics”), comprised of roughly 50 teams worldwide that host gay swim meets throughout the year.  In 1987, the Orcas helped organize Seattle’s first gay sports tournament,which over the next several years hosted 1000+ participants annually in a number of sports.  These games launched the Otters water polo team.

The Orcas were activists.  In 1986,the local media followed Rick Peterson and fellow Orca Rene Oldrich as they swam across Lake Washington to raise awareness and money to fight anti-gay rights initiative 490 in King County.  In 1987,the Orcas attended a meeting of the local swimming body (Pacific NW Aquatics) seeking “sanctioning” for its upcoming meet.  They were greeted by a packed house who wondered “What if the Ku Klux Klan were to ask us to sanction a meet?”  Political leaders such as openly gay legislator Cal Anderson intervened.  The Orcas obtained their sanction.

As the 1990’s approached, the Orca team grew to over 100 members.  Seattle University welcomed the Orcas to use their facility in 1991, where we remain today. The 1990’s also fostered acceptance.  PNA generously supported Orca Swim meets with officials, promotion, etc. In 1994, Rick Peterson joined other members of the Gay Games organization and met with Health &Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala who helped lift a U.S. ban preventing HIV positive athletes from entering the U.S. to participate in Gay Games III in New York City.  The group also met with the US Olympic Executive Committee to ease hostilities from an organization that a decade before had sued the “Gay Olympic Games” for using the term “Olympic,” despite the fact that other groups did so without repercussion (“Special Olympics” and “Senior Olympics”).

Orcas have been featured in the Seattle Times (Rick in 1994) and Out Magazine (SU Coach Craig Mallery and Paul Sherman).  We began increasing our straight membership,as illustrated by the election of Co-captain Suzie Ness in the early 1990’s.    The news was not all good this decade,however,as the Orca team lost roughly 12 people since its inception to AIDS.

In the 21st century,the Orcas resemble most other swim clubs – which requires a tip of our hat to the visionaries who founded this team.   We have roughly 200 swimmers on our roster,comprised of men and women,gay and straight, fast and slow, who range in age from 20-something to … well beyond that!  In our 30th year, we honor that select group of men and women who started a team that took awhile to be embraced.  As one Orca recently noted,“Orca provided support for me when I was coming out at age 36!  Without them, I don’t know what I would have done.”