Gay Games Athlete Profile: Louis Tharp

by Stacy Coronis
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Friday May 12, 2006

Sometimes there are epiphanies and all of the sudden, things change. So it was with Gay Games athlete Louis Tharp, who one day decided that the sedentary lifestyle was no longer for him and quite literally jumped into the deep end by beginning to swim. Tharp, who began swimming ten years ago at age 45, didn't just start swimming recreationally once or twice a week. This life change was full throttle.

When Tharp had his epiphany, it was his high blood pressure, 70 extra pounds, junk food habit and all of the possible conditions and diseases that could stem from these that helped him realize he had to make a change. A total lifestyle revision was in order and Tharp attacked this new plan with a vengeance, hiring a swim coach, an internist, a dryland trainer, chiropractor, and sports psychologist. With his trainers and supportive boyfriend, Jim Bumgardner, by his side, Tharp learned not only how to swim, but made such leaps and bounds in his efforts that he competed in his first race that same year.

Making the jump from sedentary to active was an easy decision for Tharp, once he had made it. Deciding swimming was the way to a healthier life was also easy for him. Tharp did not play any sports as a child, so had no affiliation to any particular team game. Playing tennis became a possibility when Tharp and Bumgardner bought a house with a tennis court in the backyard, but both quickly realized they hated the sport. Tharp ended up in the pool because he always felt comfortable in the water and found that once he started to swim for exercise it really energized him as opposed to sapping his energy as some other activities had.

As Tharp spent more time in the pool, he got more and more interested in every aspect of the sport and the little nuances in training, eating or mechanics that could change his abilities and race times.

"Swimming is for smart people. I like it because it is intellectually challenging. Every time I swim, I learn something that makes me better at it. Swimming is like a fun puzzle - one that's not all sky. Even when you think you're just going back and forth, something happens if you let it. Maybe it's a slight change in stroke, or a way to achieve better balance, or a better way to breathe. For me, the learning doesn't stop. It is a total escape into a world of adventure and endorphins with no responsibility except feeling better when I get out of the water than when I got in," Tharp enthuses of his passion for the sport.

Part of his great joy in learning all there is to know about swimming he got from his coach, Terry Laughlin, who is the founder of Total Immersion. Total Immersion is a style of swim coaching that stresses the mind body connection, graceful, economical swimming and becoming one with the water. Not only did Laughlin's techniques help Tharp to become a better swimmer in his own right, it helped him as an intern coach with the same program.

In addition to swimming and coaching with Total Immersion, Tharp also belongs to masters swimming programs at West Point Military Academy Masters and Columbia University Masters as well as Team NY Aquatics, a large gay team in New York City, which is the team he will be traveling to Chicago for the Gay Games with this summer. Team NY Aquatics is mixed group of mostly gay men, some who swim competitively and some who swim mostly for enjoyment.

The trip to Chicago will be Tharp's first Gay Games and he is very much looking forward to the experience. While he has participated in other large events, such as the Nationals and the World Masters, he has been unable to make to past Gay Games. This year, however, Tharp will be participating in many events, including the 800 Free, 200 Fly, 400 Free, 400 IM, the 1500 Free, and relays. He will join his teammates from Team NY Aquatics for the relays, but much prefers the individual events as they give him more control and are distance, which he prefers, as opposed to sprinting events.

It is not just the opportunity to compete that draws Tharp to the Gay Games, it is the larger picture. Tharp makes it a point to let everyone know he is gay and swimming has become an avenue for that.

"Swimming is one more way to incorporate gay issues into everyday conversations with straight people. It's critical to me that everyone knows I'm gay. I don't want anything I've done in my life to go into the heterosexual accomplishment column by mistake," Tharp explains.

It is the chance to participate in a large, well-publicized glbt event is invigorating and empowering to Tharp, as with many of the athletes involved in the Gay Games. Tharp sees the Gay Games as one more chance for him to make a positive impact in both the glbt and straight worlds.

Tharp explains his desire to compete in the Gay Games this way: "The simple way to live is this: 'that's Mr. Faggot to you,' and sports gives us the power to convey this feeling to straight people who might otherwise question our intrinsic worth. And, also, it's a way to powerfully say it to ourselves when we are questioning our intrinsic worth. Gay Games represents an opportunity to appreciate the entitlement of the majority. Because it is so rare to have so many glbt people together, the extreme ghetto that is created represents a billion megawatts of pure positive energy that nourishes the glbt soul."

The Gay Games represents a chance for those glbt people who have felt marginalized in sports or otherwise to compete in an environment that is friendly and supportive. It is also a chance to make a statement to all those out there who are still closed minded and prone to old, tired stereotypes that sexual orientation means nothing on the pitch, the baseball diamond or in the pool. The Gay Games serves the purpose of making a political statement without holding a rally, a march or a press conference and Tharp relishes the chance to make that statement.

"My goal as a gay swimmer is to stake out a place that otherwise would be held by a straight man. It's important for me to be the best swimmer I can be because I need to be able to say I've done many things in my business and in my personal life, in quiet politics, and through changing people's minds about a wide range of gay issues. And, I kiss men and kick ass in the pool."


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