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There’s not a whole helluva lot of difference in the way gay swim meets and straight competitions proceed. But at a gay event, flamboyance can earn you a trip to the victory stand that buoyancy alone won’t.

About 600 predominantly male competitors from 40 teams and a gaggle of foreign countries brought their Speedos to town last weekend for the eighth annual International Gay and Lesbian Aquatics Championships (IGLA). The host, D.C. Aquatics Club (DCAC), which was formed in 1988, went into the event as the defending world team champions.

Organizers gave the hosting role to DCAC in no small part because the Names Project’s quilt was already scheduled to be on display here over the Columbus Day holiday when the 1996 meet was awarded last year.

On paper, the event came off like any other national age-group meet, albeit one with a very high level of performance. The competition was sanctioned by U.S. Masters Swimming, the sport’s governing body. And several former college All-Americans and even one Olympic gold medalist, Bruce Hayes, were in the pool.

“Let’s face it, competitive sports can be a pretty homophobic world,” said Jack Markey, a DCAC co-founder and IGLA ’96 chairman, when asked for the significance of the annual meet. “Historically, gays and lesbians have felt uncomfortable in competitive sports, and this was formed to provide a more comfortable venue. No matter what sets this apart from [a nongay meet], the fact is that at an IGLA event you’re going to see some of the best swimming you’ll see at any meet, anywhere.”

Markey speaks the truth: Eleven national Masters records and a world record fell during the three-days of competition (Dean Putterman of DCAC broke his own mark in the 50-meter breast stroke for 30-to-34 men—straight, gay, or otherwise).

But there’s a lot more than just competition and swimming to an IGLA weekend. And as anybody who attended the final rounds at the Fairland Aquatics Center in Laurel, Md., can attest, not all the contestants at IGLA competitions would float by the membership of, say, the Jesse Helms Bath and Racquet Club without stirring up the waters.

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Take, for example, the decidedly nonathletic, but uniquely and wholly IGLA, doings on the sidewalks outside Fairland Sunday afternoon. “Very, very nice! Flawless! Perfect!” yelled DCAC’s semi-clad Jose Cunningham—part Bob Fosse, part Mitch from Baywatch—to a ragtag dance troupe made up of men with red-white-and-blue bandannas covering their naughty bits. “Now, take it from the top, one more time, only this time in your garb! Let’s go now!”

With that command, the troupe hastily put on togas in Statue of Liberty green and reassembled in an unstraight chorus line on the sidewalk. As Cunningham drilled the local boys, a hilarious melange of hairy-chested Streisands, hairy-chested Madonnas, and too many Village People to shake a stick at loitered and admired their stagecraft.

Cunningham was serving as DCAC’s choreographer, or extremely camp counselor, for the team’s entry in what is known as the Pink Flamingo relay. The other gawkers-in-drag were also gearing up for the event, which demands that entrants perform poolside skits, lip-sync to recorded music, and, oh yeah, swim 25 meters. According to the IGLA rule book, panache is just as crucial as speed. Cunningham coached accordingly.

Organizers say the Pink Flamingo is the traditional closer for all gay and lesbian water sports events. “It’s definitely something you’d never find at a regular swim meet,” said Brady Phillips, a DCAC member and proud Pink Flamingoer.

From the amount of effort the teams put into their entries, and the Fairland crowd’s obvious interest in the outlandish proceedings, it sure seemed the Pink Flamingo has also become the emotional high point of IGLA functions.

Jack King, a lifetime competitive swimmer but a rookie to IGLA, garnered a gold medal as part of the Atlanta Rainbow Trout’s winning relay entry. But King, 33, was a lot more pumped by winning a starring role in his team’s Pink Flamingo act, a Forrest Gump parody that purported to show the history of gayness in America from the 1950s til now—in less than five minutes.

“The Pink Flamingo is about flamboyancy,” King said, decked out poolside in a black leather thong, studded biker boots, and biker cap. “IGLA brings in a very diverse group, but flamboyance is very important to the gay community. I wouldn’t wear this [pointing to his garb] to a regular swim meet. Now, with all the pressure of the ‘real’ swimming competition over for the weekend, the Flamingo gives you a chance to be creative and to try to one-upsman everybody else…in a real fag kind of way. Sissies all love to do that.”

Sorry, Jack, but most witnesses agreed that his Atlanta squad’s Gump had been severely one-upped by other Pink Flamingo competitors, most noticeably the West Hollywood Masters team, which featured a litter of Madonnas giving birth (including one Dennis Rodman baby) while a prerecorded “Papa Don’t Preach” blasted over the rec center’s public address system.

After the Pink Flamingo, fans filed out to the parking lot, while competitors stuffed thongs, wigs, and construction helmets into their gym bags, and called it a meet. Phillips of DCAC gave a congratulatory/goodbye hug to an athlete from one of the Southern California teams, and with a little prodding accepted the West Coast swimmer’s offer to swap skimpy Speedos. Just like the way Pele used to trade soccer jerseys after World Cup events…actually, the exchange was a little more compelling.—Dave McKenna