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Passing the torch

Passing the torch


GenQ contributor David Luc Nguyen descended on Chicago last week to witness the spectacle of the seventh annual Gay Games. What he found was a dearth of queer youth but an abundance of spirit.

As 22-year-old Adam Safdi of Evanston, Ill., arrived at Soldier Field last week for the opening ceremonies of the seventh Gay Games, he was greeted by a crowd of angry protesters. The religious group shouted hurtful and homophobic words at him as he and others prepared to enter during the athletes procession. "It was such a beautiful contrast, walking past them into a stadium filled with over 30,000 people that are proud of who they are," he says. Safdi, who competed in Saturday's marathon, was one of only 500 athletes age 25 or younger among the nearly 12,000 athletes competing--a dearth of queer young athletes at the weeklong competition.

"The average age of the athletes is 38," says Kevin Boyer, director of marketing for the Chicago games. He believes the financial cost of the games is a big factor in why a relatively small number of young athletes competed. With registration fees starting at $275, travel expenses, lodging, and other costs associated with the games, it's no wonder younger people can't afford to attend. Safdi is fortunate enough to live in the Chicago area, obviating any travel and lodging expenses. His parents have always been supportive and even paid his registration fee.

Sasha Chen, a 24-year-old hearing-impaired youth who says "volleyball is my passion," wanted to take part in the games: "I wanted to compete, but because of the high registration fee and conflicts in my work schedule I wasn't able to," he says. Though unable to compete he was able to attend the figure skating competition, country and western dancing finals, and the volleyball tournament as a spectator.

Other young athletes, like 23-year-old swimmer Nick Chow of Davies, Fla., knew there would be some financial stress, so he and his teammates on the Nadaor Swim Team in Miami decided to organize fund-raisers. "Our team hosted a swim meet in July called Spring Splash '06. We also created a calendar of our swimmers for fund-raising to ensure all of our teammates would be able to attend the Gay Games," he says. "I was Ms. June," he explains, adding, "I spent over 1,400 this week"--a big financial burden for a young person, but an even bigger burden with you're a student.

That was the case for Tracy Pionek, 25, a hockey player from Isle, Ill. During the day she works full-time as a packing engineer, and by night she attends North Central College pursuing an MBA in change management. Tracy is also engaged to be married to her fiancee, Melissa, in August. With so many activities going on it's a wonder she finds the time to juggle it all: "Playing hockey has helped me out when life in general has gotten hard," she says. "I go out on the ice for an hour, and my worries are no longer a thought. I just hit the puck as hard as I can, and there isn't time to think about anything else but the game."

Pionek is not the only GenQer who is great at multitasking: Safdi is a senior at Northwestern University pursuing his degree in mathematics with a minor in Japanese. Amazingly, between practice sessions at the Gay Games he was also preparing for his MCAT premed exams later this year. He credits his father for his interest in running. "I was never in great shape in high school, so when my father asked me to do the Little Miami Triathlon I thought he was joking. He wasn't, and for some crazy reason I let him sign us up," he says. After four and a half grueling hours, Safdi finished with his father by his side. "My dad stuck with me the whole time, even though he could have finished a lot more quickly." Though he was sore the next day, Safdi became energized about running. That was Thanksgiving, 2004, and two years later he competed in the men's marathon here at the Gay Games. He didn't win a medal, but he says he feels it was a great accomplishment just finishing.

In contrast, Alexis Lucero (pictured) has been in athletics most of his life. Seven years ago, after injuring his knee in gymnastics, Lucero's mother suggested he try swimming, and he's been doing it ever since. "I read an article about two years ago about the Gay Games in Sydney," the 24-year-old says. "From that point I set a goal to start training and go to the Gay Games in Chicago." After a lot of hard work Lucero competed in eight events. Training wasn't easy, and there were times he felt like giving up. "I realized when you think about quitting something it's because something is challenging to you. You have to ask yourself, Is what I'm fighting for worth the challenge?" This week he set personal best times while winning four medals--one silver and three bronzes.

Both Chow and Lucero believe being younger has been advantageous at the games but expressed a concern over lack of competitors in the 18-24 age group. "I am in the youngest age group, but there aren't as many competitors," says Chow. "The flip side is that it's more fun to compete with more people. When there are only two people in your age group in a race, getting a silver medal doesn't seem as fulfilling as it should."

Jeff Yunes, a 24-year-old water polo player from Atlanta, doesn't agree. "The only advantage to being young at the games is meeting guys," he jokes. "It's a disadvantage when competing. I'm a new water polo player, and it seems the older players are more experienced." Though he isn't a starter on his team he is satisfied with the time he got to play and by his performance at the games.

Whether or not you agree that age is important, at the Gay Games one thing is widely agreed on: "It doesn't matter if you are young or old. The Gay Games have been the experience of a lifetime. It's a very unifying feeling," says 20-year-old Jason Klein of New York City. "It's great to see so many people out and proud while competing at the highest levels. Sports are something enjoyed by all communities and all races. For us to produce athletes who perform at the highest levels makes a statement to the world that the gay community isn't really all that different."

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David Luc Nguyen