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By Dan Woog
Earlier this summer, at the International Gay and Lesbian Aquatics (IGLA) Championships in Washington, D.C., Karlyn Pipes-Neilsen set three world records in her 45-49 Masters age group. Her many friends in the gay swimming world were thrilled; she’s coached many of them, and they love her positive attitude and competitive spirit.
Of course, her husband Eric was equally proud.
What’s a straight woman like Pipes-Neilsen doing winning medals at a gay event?
She’s doing exactly what the IGLA encourages: promoting participation in aquatic sports among lesbians, gay men, and friends of the community. And judging from Pipes-Neilsen’s multitude of gay fans, she’s doing it quite well indeed.
Growing up in San Diego in the 1970s, Pipes-Neilsen was surrounded by gay people. Her younger sister was in theater, and had many LGBT friends. Her parents hosted a gay foreign exchange student. And the city was home to one of the first gay swim clubs in the country.
From age 6 on, swimming was Pipes-Neilsen’s life. She earned an athletic scholarship to the University of Arkansas. At the same time, however, she had “a poor work ethic, and no discipline. I could have gone to the Olympics, but I didn’t want to do what it took to get there.”
She stopped swimming after a year in college, and spent her 20s in jobs like bartending. It was, she says, “an unhealthy lifestyle.”
At 31, she realized her life was going nowhere. She vowed to change, and swimming became her salvation. “It made me feel good about myself, and I was good at it,” Pipes-Neilsen says. “I’m a Pisces. I need to be in the water.”
Winning medals was not in her plan, but six months after returning to the pool, she had her first Masters world record. Fifteen years later, she owns a phenomenal 162 Masters world marks, and national records in the United States, Mexico, Britain, and France. In 2007, she was inducted into the International Masters Swimming Hall of Fame. But Pipes-Neilsen always remembers that her self-worth is based on her joy of swimming, not her performances.
“Swimming has helped me open my lens wide, to take in the whole picture,” she says. At Masters meets, she looks at everyone participating – men and women from all walks of life, of all body types and all ability levels – and she is elated.
That wide lens includes gay men and lesbians. She began working with them in 2005 when she and her husband formed Aquatic Edge, offering swim clinics and camps. Gay teams – traditionally self-coached – clamored for their help. Pipes-Neilsen realized that gay teams were truly inclusive, taking everyone from raw beginners to top-flight elites, and as they embraced her, she returned the love.
In 2006, she and Eric decided to show support for the gay community by swimming in the Chicago Gay Games. A woman on a California team objected to Pipes-Neilsen’s presence, saying she would take medals from deserving lesbians. Pipes-Neilsen explained that she was swimming for times, not awards, and offered to forfeit her medals if necessary.
Hordes of gay and lesbian swimmers leaped to her defense, apologizing profusely. Gay Games organizers insisted she take her awards, and Pipes-Neilsen is glad she did. “They’re the best medals I’ve ever won,” she says. “They’re shiny gold obelisks – beautiful. They say ‘Participation, Inclusion, Personal Best,’ and that sums it up perfectly. I’m so grateful the gay community lets me swim in their meets. I feel very included. And I’m proud I’ve included them in my life. Inclusion goes both ways, and it’s neat.”
Before this summer’s IGLA championships, organizers from the District of Columbia Aquatics Club and Washington Wetskins told all competitors that if they wanted to forgo medals, money would be donated to a local health clinic. “I was happy to do that,” she says. “It’s such a worthy cause.”
Having swum in countless pools, Pipes-Neilsen is an expert on aquatic events. “There’s definitely a lot more PDA and flirting at gay meets,” she laughs. “I think it’s great – very entertaining!”
At straight meets, she notes, “everyone gets so worked up over the pressures of competition. At gay meets, they have a great time, then they go out and swim. I’m always more relaxed at those meets. And I end up swimming better.”
Plus, Pipes-Neilsen says, “gay meets are way more organized. There’s a committee for everything – directions, transportation, social events, competitions. They are very well-structured productions.”
Gay meets or straight, Pipes-Neilsen is pleased she returned to the water. “Swimming is for everyone,” she says. “Take Team New York Aquatics. They’ve got gay men, and straight women with babies. But when they get in the water, they’re all just swimmers.”