Thousands of athletes from around the world are due to arrive in Northeast Ohio this week to compete in the 9th Gay Games. Although this Olympic-styled sporting event focuses on LGBT participants, you don’t have to be gay to compete. ideastream's David C. Barnett profiles three Ohio competitors who say they found their true selves through sports.
Rob Smitherman has a passion for basketball. At 6'7", he looks the part, though he's modest about his abilities.
ROB SMITHERMAN: I was a Division Three guy --- no talent and tall.
But, he says his love of basketball was tempered by the fact that, as a gay man, he couldn't find a role model in the macho world of sports. In the 1990s, things started to change --- especially when the internet came along.
ROB SMITHERMAN: One day, I typed in "Gay Basketball", and all these things came up. And I found a team, and they were going to the 1998 Gay Games.
The Gay Games were established in 1982 by Olympic decathlete Tom Waddell as a means for members of the LGBT community to express their true identities in a large scale public event at a time when homosexuality was not openly discussed. Smitherman, who is Associate Executive Director of this year’s games, says a major goal of the competition is to be a symbol of cultural inclusion.
ROB SMITHERMAN: It is a diverse event, and it is an event that encourages everyone to participate --- regardless whether they are gay or not, regardless whether they are good or not.
But, he emphasizes that the Games won't just be a bunch of amateurs stumbling across area gyms and arenas. Numerous athletes with Division One collegiate experience will compete with each other, while those with lesser skills will play in their own divisions. In all, over 35 sports will be featured in venues across Greater Cleveland and Akron. Beachwood native Lori Rosenberg will be playing 1st base for her team in the women's softball competition. As a teenager growing up in the 1970s, she felt marginalized as a gay woman, and she says it was sports that gave her a sense of achievement and self-worth --- a feeling that she wants to share with others.
LORI ROSENBERG: What I like about this team is that it is diverse in ethnicity, and in age, and in background. There are people who haven't touched a softball in probably 20-30 years, there are a couple younger people who play ball every week. That truly is the spirit of the Games.
SOUND: A fitness center buzzes with people working out on weight machines, treadmills to a hard rock soundtrack UP & UNDER
Another competitor is preparing for this year's Gay Games at the Powershack Fitness center in suburban Columbus. Mason Caminiti says he felt a little out of place when he first started training among the beefy guys building up their biceps and pumping iron. Personal trainer Shawn Nutter pulls out a pair of calipers to measure the body fat on the 5-foot-4 Caminiti.
SHAWN NUTTER: I don't care about weight. I care about fat loss and maintaining as much muscle as possible.
It's hard to imagine that there could possibly be an excess ounce of fat on Caminiti's slender body. And it's easy to overlook the faint scars from a mastectomy he had, seven years ago, when he began the transition from the female body he was born with. But, before the multiple surgeries and drug therapies, he began his personal change through the sport of body building.
MASON CAMINITI: The big thing with weight training is that it was a way for me to make my body more masculine and started the transition before I had access to any of that.
Caminiti has never competed in the Gay Games before, and the 38-year-old body builder admits he's a little nervous about being "out" as a transgender male in front of thousands of people. But, he also sees his training for the event as part of the process of becoming the person he feels like inside.
MASON CAMINITI: You know, to really sculpt and change my body to make it exactly the way I've always thought about and dreamt about when I was younger --- I mean, it’s amazing, it really is.
Gay Games official Rob Smitherman knows how that feels, and he says it can be life-changing.
ROB SMITHERMAN: You march into the opening ceremony for the first time and realize that people are accepting you as you are. The first time that you feel that, it's so affirming and so amazing.
Organizers estimate that some 9,000 athletes from around the world will get to share that feeling when the opening ceremonies for the 2014 Gay Games get underway, Saturday night in downtown Cleveland.