Saturday, the day, the opening day of the Gay Games, my first ever. It’s full of queues and standing around. I’m wearing my Out for Sport Team LGBT top so I can greet and be greeted by fellow sports people. St Pancras is a constant throng of travellers and as I have fifteen minutes before my train lane is opened, there’s time for a coffee and Pain aux Raisin. When I do join the queue, it’s stretched way down the shopping concourse. I narrowly head off a large tour party who is approaching from the other direction to join said queue. A woman wearing my Out for Sport top is looking for the end of the queue. She’s pushing a large suitcase with a hockey stick protruding. Our eyes lock in recognition and even though we’ve never met, greet each other like long lost friends so she can join me in the queue. Maria plays for the London Royals Hockey Team. Amazingly the queue moves quickly and we are seen through the barriers, security, where our bags are scanned and passports checked – automatically. Michael and Jay (both not competing due to injury) join us. Others from Out to Swim hove into view and we find ourselves in the same carriage and others not far away. The Out to Swim women behind me have packed a healthy- looking brunch with Prosecco. Our amazing coordinator, Christophe and team are at Gare du Nord to hand out our accreditation packs which they have collected for the team.
I’ve got time to check into my Hotel and sort myself out, have some lunch at the Café over the road, before making my way to the Opening Ceremony at the Stade Jean Bouin. There are handy signs outside the Metro directing us to the Stade and there are other athletes heading in the same direction. I arrive at the suggested time of 5pm. It’s stinking hot and not spotting anyone else I know, take up a position in the shade and unfurl the Out to Swim flag, which I’ve volunteered to transport. It acts as a beacon and gradually team members gather. It’s a long hot wait with nowhere to sit but on the ground. An MC gets everyone involved by identifying countries, encouraging cheering and the like.
Various countries are summoned up onto a small make-shift stage and it’s interesting to note that China is invited up before Taiwan. China has apparently objected that Taiwan are controversially using their flag, so going first reduces the likelihood of a protest. Hong Kong (the next Gay Games host) is also represented separately. There’s a group of Australians quite near us and when their call comes to come to the stage, they just stand there talking. Only a handful of Aussies make it to the stage.
When it’s Great Britain’s time to mount the stage, there’s a general barging past, interrupting conversations and someone trying to photograph Thai drag queens. Two hours and a disgusting burger and chips later, it’s time to line up in alphabetical order of country, to enter the stadium. Étais Unis are caught unawares by their move up the alphabet. Furthermore, they are supposed to be parading in alphabetical order of States. The announcer is constantly telling countries to ‘go to the Access area’ but from where we are, there are no clues as to where this might be. People from Alaska can be seen dawdling in the wrong direction. Eventually the MC gives up calling out US states and just pleads for anyone from the US to just go to the access area. This area turns out to be a tallish flag just out of view to the side.
At around 8.30pm – three and a half hours later, we enter the queue (some of the team are exhausted and have gone home to rest for the races tomorrow) and it’s a relief to be walking, even if it is only around the back of the Stade. We enter waving our Team GB white balloons which Vicki has organised. We zig-zag over the rugby pitch on a white plastic path which protects the grass. There’s a lot of noise and announcements in French which I don’t understand, and then we exit, not far from where we’ve been waiting to enter into the seating area. The French are, as host nation, the last to process and they seem to go on forever. In the meanwhile, our British balloons have escaped, some onto the pitch and several get trapped by a portable fan.
Like harmless bombs, they sneak around the place and one even makes it into the French procession. While we wait for everyone to enter, attempts at Mexican waves are tried with varying degrees of success. The entertainment begins with an impressive gymnastic display of cheer-leading, except it’s on the other side of the stadium and played to the spectators/supporters. The next act, a singer with dancers plays to the competitors, but it’s all too small for this vast arena even though it is relayed on screens. When a French comedian comes on and wonders why no one can understand him, so he starts again in English – It’s quite a good joke, but too small for this place – it’s time to leave, have beer and Glacé at a café near the hotel before retiring to rest my legs for tomorrow. It’s a big ask to fill a stadium this size with entertainment other than Rugby.
Sunday. It’s the usual dilemma, when to eat and does the hotel do breakfast early enough? Fortunately, my only race today is early in the afternoon, so I opt for the full breakfast at 7.00, hitting on the idea to prepare a small filled baguette with salami, camembert, cucumber and a lettuce leaf to eat later. I arrive at the pool hours too early and decide to test out the water by doing a pre-warm up. Everything (in the body) seems to be working as it should except that the roof of Piscine Georges Vallerey is open and the sun is streaming in. Recalling the navigation problems in the Mallorca out-door pool, not to mention the blinding sun, I ask if the roof can be closed for the backstroke. No, it can’t, because it’s made of corrugated iron and heats up. I then get a lecture from the official about how they held international meets here and how to count stokes from the flags and look at the lane ropes. ‘Yes, I know all that.’
I reply tartly. So, no luck there. There’s an afternoon warm-up session and it takes me a while to break through the wall and get going again. I’ve got my eye on the sun on Lane 4 now and it all seems manageable. Suddenly I discover I’ve been moved up a heat and to lane 1 – not my favourite. On poolside there is an announcement that backstroke starting bars are available. Suddenly everyone is asking me about them. I explain that they prevent slipping on the wall of the pool, but because they stick out a few millimetres, the toes must be above the bar touching the electronic pads. Guys look dubious, so I say ‘If you are not comfortable, don’t use them,’ and they cheer up. For the first time, I remember to stock up on oxygen by breathing deeply several times before the start and have the most comfortable and enjoyable 100 M Backstroke for a long time with a 4th place. I knew the Americans were fast (1st place 20 seconds faster than me) and so are the Canadians.
Out to Swim seem to be collecting loads of medals, particularly our women. At the end of day one I’ve already lost count of our team medal count. It’s been a long full day, cheering everyone on – time for beer and dinner at a café near the hotel.
Monday is another late start for me and again, only one race. Looking at the preliminary sheets there are three guys ahead of me entering forty-five seconds. Over a year ago I entered forty-six, so I have to swim faster than at least one of them to get a bronze. It’s time to focus and this time I don’t arrive too early and spend thirty minutes carefully warming up with backstroke kick and drills included. I try a fifty backstroke, but this is not a good idea as there as there are no backstroke flags in the warm-up pool. I whack my arm on the end of the pool – ow! Fortunately, no serious damage is done so I end up with a few HVO’s to get the blood flowing. High Velocity Overdrives involve a fast push-off and max effort for about six strokes followed by easy to the end of the pool. Back in the stands, a few distractions cause minor panic as I’ve got to change into my Arena Skins for the race.
As they are literally skin tight – this can take a few minutes and I need to sit down in a cubicle and roll them up my legs to start with. All goes well and I’m below the forty-five seconds entered by the guys in the next heat. Amazingly, in a field of Americans three of the guys don’t swim that fast and two haven’t turned up so I get the gold medal – fantastic and unexpected, with a personal best thrown in.
I’m dining Chéz Robert Jolly and his partner Gerrard near Port D’Italie this evening. Robert sort of belongs to Paris Aquatique, but is swimming for Australia – his home country this week. He turns up at a lot of the international meets as well as the British ones. He’s invited a couple from West Hollywood aquatics to make up five for dinner. We are all in the older age-groups, so there’s stuff to talk about. The Californians have quite a few ‘interesting’ things to say about their current president. Gerrard is a charming host and Robert has done us five magnificent courses. We can’t stay too late as we are all swimming in the morning and I have a very early start.