Swimmers, Angels and Orcas... not just some random collection of words or the cast of the latest tribe from Game of Thrones, but the names of the different disciplines of the UK’s premier LGBT+ aquatics sports club, Out To Swim.
Based in London, Brighton and Bristol and founded some 25 years ago by a small band of enterprising LGBT swimmers, Out To Swim, or OTS to its friends, welcomes all adults with an interest in aquatic sport. The majority of the members are LGBT+ but as long as members show equal respect to each other, irrespective of age, sexual orientation, gender, faith, ethnic origin or nationality, then all are welcome.
Out To Swim is one of the biggest masters aquatics clubs in the UK and offers training sessions with experienced coaches every day of the week in London. Catering for a wide range of abilities, OTS offers sessions in pool swimming, open water, water polo (the Orcas) and artistic (synchronised) swimming (the Angels).
Initially most members join to swim in a familiar and safe space and to improve their swim technique and overall fitness, but as coach and swimming member of 21 years Laura says, OTS also has “an amazing sense of community, family and history”.
With lessons and beginners sessions available across all disciples, swimming ability, or lack thereof, is no hindrance to participation at OTS. New member Jo initially joined to learn to swim so she could take part in a triathlon but has since completed the annual water polo beginners course and, despite her own admission of “not being the best swimmer”, the encouragement and motivation she has received at OTS has resulted in her swimming really improving.
Georgie was also a newbie 6 months ago and joined the Orcas water polo team to do the beginners course. She was immediately impressed and feels that “the coaching is fantastic and there is huge support from the club to improve and join the more experienced players. They also have focused on increasing diversity within the club and have a women's team competing across the London League getting great results!”
As with many team sports and clubs, the social element is just as important as the sport itself.
After moving from Vancouver to London, Lawrence felt a bit like a fish out of water until he found the Orcas. “Without a community around me, I found London increasingly isolating.”
“I had joined with the intention just to meet new people but found myself surrounded by my first queer community. The club has easily become my primary source of social interaction in this sometimes overwhelming city.”
He goes on to say, “OTS offers many different levels across multiple disciplines, allowing members to enter at any level of experience and to try new sports. As an experienced aquatics athlete, I am pushed and challenged by being in a club with athletes whom are better than I am, while also learning and growing from those whom have just started water polo for the first time.”
Deputy Head Coach Nathan spotted OTS in the pool while he was coaching a university swim team and immediately noticed how popular the sessions were and how much the swimmers were enjoying it. “I have seen them in action at swim meets and the interaction between clubs is always something great to witness. So many friends and ‘friends of friends’ get introduced to us up in the stands and often sit down and become part of our group.”
“At the Gay Games in Paris last year (2018) a swimmer and her partner sat within our group. They were from Denver, USA and I don’t think many of her team were there (if any). By the end of that session they told us they’d noticed us supporting our team in every event be they in a fast heat or a slow heat all week so wanted to come and be with us. The next day they were sitting amongst us again and she asked if one of us could be her designated ‘lap counter’ in the 1500m. She ended up winning gold, pipping our own swimmer. Didn’t stop us cheering them both. I was so proud of our club that her and her partner wanted to sit with us and be part of our group. I think that speaks volumes for OTS.”
OTS is one of the very few clubs that offers synchronized swimming at a masters (adult) level. Primarily seen as a female only sport, OTS Angels have been at the forefront of campaigning for the international governing bodies to allow men to compete and, although not yet an Olympic sport, since 2015 mixed male-female duets have been allowed at the world championships.
Volunteer coach Eleanor feels that making waves in the sport is vital for diversity and inclusion; “When I was a little girl training in synchronised Swimming, we had a boy in our team, and were disqualified at competition. It affected me profoundly, and I’m proud to be part of a club that is making sure the landscape of the sport progresses to accommodate everyone.”
Uniquely, OTS also have a section called Positive Strokes for HIV-positive women and men who want to compete as openly HIV positive swimmers and train and improve their technique in an accepting and welcoming environment.
Virginia, a Positive Health member since 2004 finds the team very supportive and swimming helps her feel free and relaxed. Having lived with HIV for 22 years, she is keen to attend competitions wearing her Positive Stokes t-shirt to try and reduce the stigma associated with HIV.
Coach Nathan sums it up perfectly when he says, “OTS is a fantastic, supporting and loving environment that I am very very proud to be part of. There are so many experiences to be shared no matter what discipline you choose to take up. Key to it all is that the camaraderie that exists is not reserved just for the water.”
Want to try Out to Swim? Why not take advantage of their 3 free taster sessions? Just pop along to the website, fill in the form and the membership secretary will confirm try-out session dates for you. In the first session, a coach will assess your level and allocate you into the appropriate lane.
They also have their annual Boat party on 31st Aug and GLLAM19 on 7th Sep in the iconic London Aquatic Centre, home of the London 2012 Olympic Games. Details on the web.
Website : https://www.outtoswim.org/
Words and photos ChrisJepson.com