Chicago Smelts History
The Chicago Smelts began more than 30 years ago through dedicated lobbying on the part of a handful of Chicago-area gay swimmers. 1988 was a time of rampant homophobia and AIDS-phobia, and many swimmers who were involved with the Smelts were affected by AIDS personally or through friends and family. The community was reeling, and many gay people responded by forming sports clubs for both health and social reasons around the country, including in Chicago. As team members began to come together to lobby the Chicago Park District for dedicated pool time, they were initially met with resistance and had to take up ad-hoc swim practices at Eckhart Park on Chicago Avenue. Gill Park in Chicago’s Boystown neighborhood already had a practice time for Master’s swimmers and by winning over the sole swimmer who regularly utilized the time, the Chicago Smelts residency at Gill Park began. That sole swimmer, Ross Patronsky, still swims with the Smelts today. Original organizers included Mark Schoofs, Mike McGuire, and Damon Mackert, and were soon joined by Chris Layton, John Heintz, and others.
The Smelts have always taken great pride in being diverse and inclusive, and the team referred to itself in the early years as Chicago’s (mostly) Gay and Lesbian Swim Club, as well as the cheeky acronym of Sensitive Men et Lesbians Together Swimming. It was very important for team members to be out and proud and to participate in the team as openly gay members. Throughout the early years of the team’s existence, members had to remain staunch advocates to ensure continued pool time and a presence at Gill Park, including attending Gill Park Advisory Council meetings, running for council leadership positions, and meeting with the Alderman at the time, Helen Schiller. This active attitude and approach also guided out-of-pool efforts, whether it was team activism, fundraising for AIDS and community organizations, socializing at restaurants and homes, or simply Halloween vamping.
Coupled with activism and commitment to the LGBTQ community, the team has retained a focus on striving for personal improvement in swimming and competing as a team. One of the team’s first swim meets was the Evanston Master’s meet in December of 1988, with five intrepid Smelts signing up to take the plunge. That was also the first year the team marched as the Chicago Smelts in the Gay Pride Parade, and this has been a yearly tradition ever since. 1989 was the year of Seattle's Northwest Gay and Lesbian Sports Festival in July and the DCAC (District of Columbia Aquatics Club) swim meet in October, with many Smelts making cross-country trips to participate in this national movement of gay aquatics. It was also the first of several “Smelts Triathlon Weekends” when both individual and teams of Smelts competed in the Sun-Times sponsored triathlon. In August of 1990, 16 Smelts attended the Gay Games III in Vancouver, bringing home 12 hard-earned medals.
But it was not all hard work - the Smelts have always known how to let loose and celebrate friendship. Smelts competed in the Halloween costume contest in 1990 as the Robert Palmer Girls at Vortex nightclub sporting black tube dresses, high heels and lots of makeup; they won the much-deserved first place prize that night. Halloweens thereafter saw the team entering similar contests as Miss America contestants, Diet Pepsi Uh-Huh Girls, Hooters Girls, and of course the fabulous 101 Dalmatians with the unforgettable, transcendent majesty of the Smelts’ own Cruella de Vil (Mark Reeves)! In the early 90s, there were also several combined events with the Chicago Frontrunners, the LGBTQ running group that formed at around the same time. The Smelts beat them at their own game, coming in first in 1991 at the Proud to Run race and hosted joint pool parties for the two teams.
The Smelts also have a history of community advocacy, and many events over the years have been devoted to fundraising. The first Swim Your Heart Out swim-a-thon event in 1991 raised over $17,000 for the AIDS Alternative Health Project. These fundraisers continued throughout the 1990s and raised nearly $30,000 in 1997. Beneficiaries included Open Hand Chicago, which served hot meals to the doors of HIV/AIDS affected citizens in the community. Many Smelts personally volunteered and delivered these meals themselves. Other financial beneficiaries of the swim-a-thons 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.
In 1992 the Smelts joined the International Gay and Lesbian Aquatics (IGLA) organization, and hosted the annual IGLA swim meet at the University of Illinois, Chicago pool in 1993. The Gay Games VII were also hosted in Chicago in 2006, and the size of the team grew exponentially as many swimmers trained for that event. Today, the team is roughly 130 members strong, four-time Illinois Masters state champions, and remains committed to fitness, the LGBTQ aquatic community, and friendship.
As told by by Patrick Tranmer and Bruce Wexelberg, April 2018