“This changed the norm,
no one could imagine that there were athletes who were gay.”
As a member of a Division 1 track and field program, I personally can attest to the absurdity of the notion that accomplished athletes can’t be gay. My co-captain and best friend is bisexual, and many of our best athletes are openly gay. Your sexual orientation determines your success in athletics just about as much as your eye color or haircut does.
All the more breathtaking, then, is Lis Bartlett’s documentary film Light in the Water (2018), which was featured as part of this year’s 16th Annual Southside Film Festival. Nominated for Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Special Class Special, the film tells the story of the West Hollywood Aquatics Club (WH2O), the first openly gay Masters swim team and water polo club. It introduces many members of the team, highlighting their different journeys to the Gay Olympic Games (Gay Games). The film significantly illustrates that the odyssey towards equality was a hard-fought battle that is far from won. If not for pioneers such as the courageous members of WH2O, we might still be living in a society where gay athletes can’t pursue their dreams.
Sadly, that reality was all too real for Charlie Bartel, one of the members of West Hollywood Aquatics. The film begins with his heartbreaking narrative. Bartel reveals that, despite having some of the top times in the country as a young swimmer, he was forced to forgo his Olympic dream. He was bullied off his high school team by the other athletes and the coach. High school athletics immensely changed my life, so upon hearing this tale I was immediately outraged. Just a few minutes into the movie, I was angrily swaying about in my seat, hands tightly clenched, desperately rooting for Bartel and the other club members to triumph over their many challenges.
Shortly following Bartel’s story, the documentary introduces many members of the team and their experiences in 1982 competing in the first Gay Olympics in San Francisco. It’s difficult to not engage with interviewees when hearing accounts of how life-changing the Games were for them. The story of Morri Sprang really got my blood boiling. Sprang was fired from her teaching job for promoting the Gay Olympics. She claims that being unfairly fired made “the mission of the Gay Olympics crystal clear.” Mauro Bordovsky, another member of the team, says that, through the Games, they “made history.”
Michele Mealiffe’s journey to the Games provides another inspiring anecdote. He came out when he was 49 years old, while married with two kids. He was divorced and worried he would spend the rest of his life alone. After discovering West Hollywood Aquatics, he decided to attend a practice. He describes how, as soon as he entered the water, he began crying. “Everyone was so welcoming. In a very short period of time, my entire life changed,” he stated enthusiastically. Mealiffe went on to set two Masters world records at the 1990 Games! With real footage of Mealifee celebrating with his teammates, and dramatic music in the background, it’s hard not to feel that his individual victory was really a victory for all.
The first few Gay Games occurred right in the heart of the AIDS epidemic. A segment of the film focuses on the team’s experience with the pandemic, and their beloved friends and family members who sadly passed away. I will never forget Mike Wallace’s statement: “Pretty devastating. Being 33 years old and burying four of your best friends.”
Despite everything, WH2O persisted, and the team is stronger than ever. The film ends with interviews of current club members, comprised of gay and straight athletes of varying ages. Mauro Bordovsky indicates the progress visible in American athletics, saying: “We’re no longer the gay team, we’re now the team that happens to be gay.” After these words, I had to hold myself back from jumping up to celebrate such a significant milestone.
The documentary does a wonderful job of presenting the athletes alongside their experiences. By the conclusion of the film, I felt like I knew many of them personally. The swimmers’ ability to overcome adversity was inspiring on every level. As an athlete, I know how difficult it is to train and compete, even when life is easy. The members of WH2O were able to accomplish great swimming feats while battling discrimination, deaths of loved ones, illnesses, and other challenges. This film rightly celebrates the members of West Hollywood Aquatics for their remarkable efforts toward achieving justice and making history.
*Feature photo courtesy of: Light in the Water Facebook*