In Sports, as in Life, Equality Matters

Katie Ledecky smiles after winning the womens 200-meter freestyle final at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro on Aug. 9.

Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images

Hey, Daddy! is a monthly column exploring the joys and struggles of parenting from a gay father’s perspective. Got a topic idea or question for Daddy? Send your letter along to johnculhane19104@gmail.com.

With the Olympics having clicked over from swimming to track, the moment seems apt to reflect on sports. The quadrennial event (about which Slate writer Justin Peters summarized my feelings with eerie exactitude) has made me think about my own relation to sports—and sports culture—and how I’m transmitting that perspective to my two daughters.

To some extent, my view of sports is determined by its distance from the way my husband David considers the subject. Before reading the paper each morning, he dons a hazmat suit, plucks out the sports section with a pair of long tongs, and deposits it in the nearest medical waste bin. Sports commentators to him are nattering nabobs of nothingness, and tennis—my favorite spectator sport, at least as long as Roger Federer keeps playing—is a needlessly strenuous variant of Pong. He’s not anti-activity—he can garden, or hike, for hours—but he has less than no interest in any kind of organized sport, especially at the professional level.

Our neighbors assume that I’m as far from a sports lover as they are. There’s some reason for this. I’m barely conversant with what’s going on with, say, football (probably my least favorite sport of all), and neither of us is ever invited to any of the weekly football-watching parties. It’s the stuff of broad comedy that my first job out of college was to cover high-school football for a local Gannett newspaper. My most memorable act of buffoonery was to record the stats with a felt-tipped pen, only to see the results bleed into blue pulp during a steady rain. I then made up some numbers, and no one seemed to notice, or care.

Why would I even take such a job? Because football was the price I had to pay in order to cover sports I did like—especially swimming. And it’s my connection to swimming that has given me a perspective on sports that differs from David’s.

My experience with swimming has been close to perfectly positive. My father, who excelled in high-school swimming in the Bronx, started a summer team when I was 13 years old, and I took to it immediately. (Well, I didn’t really have a choice. But I loved it right away.) By today’s start-the-sport-in utero-or-don’t-bother standard, getting into athletics as a teenager is insanely late. But if the goal is lifelong interest in a sport, my delayed start was perfect. I had just enough native talent in the butterfly to be competitive in the arenas where I competed (local dual meets, first, then through college and into Masters swimming), and I was lucky enough never to have been in programs that burned me out. I could sate my enormous love for competition with a sport that puts a premium on individual effort, where I could literally enclose myself in a bubble. I was part of a team, but on my own terms.

And swimming was enormously helpful in another way, too. When I was trying to navigate through the many obstacles in my late coming-out process, I joined Philly’s gay swim team, the FINS. The team was a bunker of sorts, providing the security I needed to march up the steep steps toward a fully realized, authentic identity.

My college teammates, too, have proved universally steadfast; my coming out didn’t seem to surprise them, and “hoops of steel” continue to connect us. In fact, as I write this I’ve just emerged from a 4-mile swim (on a crystal-clear lake in the Adirondack Mountains) as I prepare for our annual alumni reunion event, a 2-mile swim in the James River.

I’ve also been a coach, having worked with everyone from pre-competitive swimmers, to national level athletes, to fussy Masters swimmers. And now both of my kids are competitive swimmers. Layering my new role as swimming parent atop my experiences as a swimmer, a coach, and a somewhat sports-averse gay man has helped me see why swimming, in particular, is a great sport for kids—whoever those kids happen to be.

The most obvious benefit is that the kids learn to set goals, and then to figure out (with a coach’s help) how to meet them. The clock, which is the only thing that matters in swimming, is remorseless. And since—as even Michael Phelps knows—there’s always someone faster and slower than you, learning to deal with losses and to concentrate on your own improvement is part of the deal.

In team sports—as great as they can be for teaching kids the value of working together toward a common goal—it’s harder for kids to chart their own progress. Swimmers do get some experience with teamwork, though, because of relays and the need to work on those all-important exchanges. (Unfortunately, relays are disappearing from age-group meets, a development I bemoaned here.)

Perhaps more important, though, is what swimming teaches both girls and boys about sports and gender. I was even aware of this, on some level, in high school. Patty Dillon could kill us all in practice, and, forced to swim on the boys’ team, she advanced to the finals of the regional high school championship. In college, the best female swimmer kept pace with the fastest men when her schedule forced her to train with us rather than her teammates. And my daughters already know how Katie Ledecky destroys all the guys in practice.

Today, swimming has more gender mixing than ever, and most people associated with the sport embrace it. At many colleges (including my own, William and Mary), the men’s and women’s teams now compete at meets together, with the sexes alternating events. Mixed-gender relays—two men and two women—were added to the 2015 swimming world championships, and there’s talk about making them part of the Olympics. And you won’t find a sport where the elite men are more supportive of their female teammates. Their admiration for the impossibly fast Ledecky borders on reverence, and Rowdy Gaines—the greatest, most enthusiastic sports commentator I’ve ever heard—has both condemned the dusty rule that keeps women out of the 1,500-meter freestyle at the Olympics (they swim the 800, while men do the 1,500) and offered this perfect comment about Ledecky’s swimming: “A lot of people think [she] swims like a man … She swims like Katie Ledecky, for crying out loud.”

Any sport so welcoming of girls and women is also a natural habitat for gay kids who are trying to find a place for themselves in the still-macho world of competitive sports. Only tennis is similarly evolved in this way, with equal prize money at the major events, enormous stars who draw as many fannies to the seats as the men, and actual, head-to-head competition between men and women (in mixed doubles, now an Olympic event). As Billie Jean King never tires of stressing, when girls are treated equally, it’s good for boys, too.

Did I push my kids into swimming? Sure, to an extent. But when my one daughter told me a couple of years ago that she didn’t want to swim (and said, “Dad, I think you want me to swim”), that was that. I was glad, though, when she decided to return to the sport this year, even though she doesn’t especially like competing. (Her sister is more the shark, after her competitive dad.) Because swimming sends exactly the message this ambivalent, gay “sports dad” wants to send my children:

Sports are great, if you compete on your own terms. And there are no better sports than those that value boys and girls, and gay and straight swimmers, alike.

Read more of Slate’s Olympics coverage.