Playing For The Other Team: Minnesota Represents at the 2014 Gay Games

By Nell Gelhaus July 10, 2014

Categories: Our Scene, Sports, Stories

“My parents put me in soccer, but I was assigned goalie and more interested in looking at the different types of rocks in the ground on the field.”

St. Paul resident Dan Whittaker will be competing in the upcoming Gay Games (August 9th-16th in Cleveland+Akron, Ohio) and is describing his athletic history. The way he tells it, there isn’t much history to speak of, but he’s looking forward to competing in three events at the Games: judo, the 5k and 10k.

“I wasn’t interested in sports at all as a kid…I sucked at team sports and felt awful when I let my teammates down if I failed.  In judo, it is just me participating so if I fail, it’s on my own shoulders.”

Being a former mixed martial artist myself (albeit in amateur Muay Thai kickboxing), I understood the general concept of judo, though needed a refresher. An internet search brought me quickly to a trove of Ronda Rousey YouTube videos, and an hour later I was no closer to understanding judo scoring, but an expert on Ronda Rousey. Fangirling!

Watching a judo match vaguely reminds me of weebles. There are no punches or kicks, but a lot of falling down and popping back up. How does one win, exactly? Back to Dan.

“At first glance it looks like two men in bathrobes wrestling.”

(Or women. See: hours wasted viewing Rousey videos.)

“The objective is to throw your opponent to the ground with one of sixty-some throwing methods, or to pin them for thirty seconds minimum. You can also win by submission, like by using a person’s robe (gi) to choke them and cut off their blood supply, or by an armbar. All will result in a win.”

Whittaker has been practicing judo on and off for seven years with the University of Minnesota Judo Club, and has competed in local community matches. He currently holds a green belt. How did this non-athlete find this decidedly physical sport?

Whittaker tells me he discovered judo upon completing his graduate degree in Architecture at the University of Minnesota. A classmate was a co-instructor at the UM-TC Judo Club, which is open to all ages, and there he became an adult student, practicing with current U of MN students. Practice consisted of learning judo throws and repeating them until they become natural. Whittaker also weight trains, and runs, and says flexibility is important to escape holds.

By day, Dan is an interior designer, currently working project management for a private museum in Chicago. It’s his first Gay Games, and he says his goals are to participate as an out, gay, Asian-American athlete, and as a citizen of the United States with a Korean-American adoptee heritage.

“Meeting athletes around my age…competing, and not feeling the need to conceal my sexuality…is a huge attraction to the event.”

Indeed, that’s what the Games were originally designed to do. Like the Olympics, the Gay Games are an international sporting and cultural event held every four years. They were conceived in 1980 by Dr. Tom Waddell, a gay physician and former Olympian.

The Games are open to anyone age 18 or older “regardless of sexual orientation, race, gender, religion, nationality, ethnic origin, political beliefs, athletic or artistic ability, age, physical challenge or health status.” (www.gg9cle.com) More than 35 sports are currently offered, from cycling to flag football, body building to rowing, as well as both band and choir. The focus has always been the empowerment of the GLBT community—and athletes in particular—and a desire to change attitudes towards the GLBT population for the better.

Since 1980, the Games have been held in multiple locations across the globe: San Francisco; Vancouver, B.C.; New York City; Amsterdam, The Netherlands; Sydney, Australia; Chicago; and most recently, Cologne, Germany. Cleveland/Akron is expecting up to 9,000 participants from around the world for the 9th Gay Games, and approximately 20,000 additional guests. It isn’t all about the competition, either, with festivities and parties planned for the duration of the games, including headliner Boy George at the official Gay Games 9 White Party.

The day after our interview, I asked Dan to send a photo of himself to accompany this column. He hesitated.

“I certainly don’t want my picture blown up huge at all—in fact, tiny postage-stamp size is totally fine with me. I am NOT typically a huge publicity seeker when it comes to these things. What if I lose all my judo matches or fall and stumble on the 5k or 10k I also signed up for? That would be a big disappointment! “

Games founder Waddell said it best. “The Gay Games are not separatist, they are not exclusive, they are not oriented to victory, and they are not for commercial gain. They are, however, intended to bring a global community together in friendship, to experience participation, to elevate consciousness and self-esteem, and to achieve a form of cultural and intellectual synergy.” (www.gg9cle.com)

Best of luck in the Games, Dan! You see, you’re already a winner.

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