West Hollywood is generally considered to be the beating queer heart of Los Angeles, so it’s no surprise to find that it’s also the home of one of the world’s biggest LGBTQ aquatics clubs – WH2O.
I spoke with Shea Manning, Head Coach of WH2O, for a behind-the-scenes look at the club.
WH2O has been running for over 35 years - is there still a need for an LGBTQ aquatics club?
One of the biggest draws to WH2O is the long and illustrious history that our founders and long-time members have built from the team’s very inception. That sense of history and purpose as it relates to athletic participation, performance, inclusion, and social justice still resonates today. It’s a piece of the team that is palpable from the moment you attend your first practice, and it’s clear that it will always be an important part of our core values and mission.
We’re lucky to live in a place and time where we can ask ourselves whether or not an LGBTQ aquatics space is still necessary – especially as we begin to see more and more new members who do not identify as LGBTQ – it’s a testament to the impact WH2O has had on the accessibility and participation levels in aquatics. That said, as long as there are people out there that feel ostracised in their community or family, or on their team, there will be a need for LGBTQ sports teams - and we’ll be there to welcome them with open arms.
You’ve currently got a membership of over 150 people. Is there room for further growth?
Pool space is always an issue for swim teams and training groups – there are just not enough competitive swimming pools for the amount of interest in the area. That said, the focus has always been about reaching everyone who could benefit from joining our team, and we’ve expanded our practice offering to match our needs. We’re not nearly as concerned about numbers as we are about creating a welcoming environment for as many folks as we can - we’ll take the issues that pop up from high participation in stride.
The club membership is currently fairly male-dominated?
The early foundation of the team was almost entirely gay men - they recognised the need in aquatics participation and wanted to do something about it. That kind of activism and impact resonates the most with young gay men that benefit from the earlier generation’s hard work. That said, our younger generation of swimmers are much more diverse and our team continues to evolve organically – though we would love to see more women joining us in the coming years.
How does the club navigate gender identity?
WH2O is completely inclusive - we do have athletes on the team who identify as trans, but more importantly, there’s room on the team for anyone who is committed to bettering themselves athletically and positively contributing to the team culture and environment.
In many ways, I think the trans population is at a similar point of progress that our gay and lesbian founders were at when they established WH2O in the early 80s. The world of sports is haphazardly discussing the appropriate role of trans athletes in competition, and those conversations happen on our team all the time. Hopefully our current and future trans members will continue to guide us so we can be as big a part of the conversation and progress of trans participation as we have been with gay and lesbian participation.
Do you have to be a really strong swimmer in order to join the club?
No! You don’t need to be a really strong swimmer to join the team - just capable of getting across the pool without any help. An elementary understanding of the strokes will be helpful, but the best advice I can give someone is just to come and try it out one practice. We’ll make you feel welcome and, at the very least, you’ll walk away with some really great drills that you can continue to practice and develop on your own.
What are some of the goals and aspirations for the club in the months ahead?
We certainly want to continue to reach more women and trans athletes, as well as to increase our overall participation in regional, national, and international competitions.
Other than that, we really focus on micro-goals - the day-to-day commitment to greater connection, and dedication to bettering ourselves through lifetime fitness. We know that highlighting these elements will take our members and our organisation in the direction we want to go in.