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Rainbow Trout brings inclusive approach to water polo

By Sierra Webster - The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Water lapped over the edges of the McAuley Aquatic Center dive pool – home of the swimming-and-diving competition at the 1996 Olympic Games. The sound of voices and splashing water echoed through the now-enclosed center in the wistful way sound carriers in indoor pools.

“Atlanta 96” bins and 23-year-old Olympic flags and timers sat forgotten in a supply closet. On a Tuesday in July, Jon Valentine, carrying two ball bags and water-polo caps hanging from metal rings, tossed the equipment onto the pool deck. The bags, blue mesh with yellow varsity-style lettering, read “Trout Polo.”

Valentine, 46, is tall and broad-shouldered. He’s sporting a dirty-blonde crew cut with a neon-orange whistle on a yellow cord hanging around his neck.

At 7:30 p.m., he yelled to the 22 people standing on the pool deck, “400 warmup!” 

A diversity of swimsuits – training suits, water-polo suits, swim trunks, speedos – clung to the bodies of the swimmers, but the Speedos stand out the most: teal with hot-pink flamingos, camo, neon-colored pineapples against a black background, the Georgia flag plastered against the back end of one athlete.

As they jumped into the pool, the displaced water spilled over Georgia Tech pool flags laying in the gutters of the 17-foot-deep infinity pool.

Valentine, a gay man, is the director of the Rainbow Trout water-polo team, an LGBTQ-aligned and affirming masters’ USA Water Polo team in Atlanta. Founded in 1998 by the Rainbow Trout swim club, the team most recently returned from the International Gay and Lesbian Aquatic (IGLA) championships where they earned bronze in the recreational division. 

Valentine said that as a youngster from northern Ohio with aspirations to play sports, it was difficult to walk into a locker room and hear homophobic slurs.

“You’re not going to be involved in that at all,” Valentine said.

Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Where everyone has a home

The Trout has created something different.

During Trout practices, LGBTQ players can express their full selves as athletes, not splintering off pieces of their identity for the sake of athletic ability and competition as so many have. Think Greg Louganis or John Amaechi, who both waited to come out as gay post-retirement. 

And while, Valentine said things have changed for the better socially since he joined the Trout in its early years, the team continues to be a place of acceptance and inclusion for LGBTQ athletes.

Athletes such as Sean, who said the Trout made him more comfortable with his identity, or Tristan, a transgender man who took his shirt off in public for the first-time post-top-surgery at a Trout practice. 

“And there stood Jon (Valentine), the only one knowing about my transition at this point, proudly nodding, with his thumb up, mouthing ‘You look great!’” said Tristan, who requested only his first name be referenced.

At 7:50 p.m. at McAuley, Valentine started throwing yellow-and-blue-stripped water-polo balls into the dark water, as the team began warm-up passing and several swimmers pulled the water-polo cages – floating, netted goals that look like miniature soccer goals – into the pool to take practice shots. 

Tuesday nights are typically skill-building nights, where the team practices passing and shooting, while Friday nights are “blow-out-the-week” nights when the team scrimmages before heading out for pizza and beer. 

One of the Trout’s values is to be accessible and inclusive of people with all different skill sets and experience levels. They have only two requirements of beginners: that they be able to swim a length of the pool and tread water, for safety. 

Part of being accessible to beginners means having opportunities to learn the movements, rules and techniques of the regionally obscure sport, opportunities such as Trout 101 – an open house for people interested in learning more about the sport and club held.

Inclusivity is central to the Trout’s identity. 

Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Achieving international success

Sean Fitzgerald, one of nine founders of the Rainbow Trout swim club, started the water-polo team in 1998 ahead of the 1999 IGLA Championships, which the aquatic club was hosting in Atlanta. No host had ever not entered a water-polo team in the tournament. Fitzgerald leveraged that fact to start a LGBTQ-accepting team in Atlanta.

“When we started the team, no one had ever played water polo before,” he said. “I was starting the team, and I had played in two tournaments at that point.” 

He recruited three or four of his swimmer friends. Through word-of-mouth, the budding club recruited friends and athletes with backgrounds in volleyball, softball and soccer. 

One of the people Fitzgerald recruited was Valentine. 

Valentine grew up in Mansfield, Ohio, where he swam in summer leagues. When Valentine graduated from Miami of Ohio, he knew he would have to leave the midwestern state. Small cities such as Mansfield didn’t lend themselves to the acceptance of young gay men. 

After visiting Atlanta on a business trip, Valentine decided that was where he wanted to be. He moved to the city and got involved in the LGBTQ community and the city’s nightlife. One night when he was out, he met Fitzgerald. After figuring out that Valentine swam in high school, Fitzgerald invited him to the team’s practice the next morning, and Valentine went. 

“He had this vision for what a water-polo team would look like – what a gay-inclusive water-polo team would look like,” Valentine said. “He created this team.”

It took the motley crew of former swimmers and volleyball players years to win a game, but they stuck with it, eventually winning gold at the IGLA championships, nearly two decades after the club’s inception.

The club continues to grow and change, giving way to a new generation of Trout players. When the team first started, it was almost entirely gay, white men. Now, the group is more diverse both racially and within (and outside of) the LGBTQ community and is more representative of an urban hub like Atlanta, Valentine said. 

That includes players such as Jamel Grooms, a gay swimmer who joined after college and had never been honest with his teammates about his sexuality before the Trout. Or Tristan. Or Blair and Phoebe, straight cisgender women with collegiate water polo experience who wanted post-college opportunities to continue playing.

“It’s just a regular sports team,” Grooms said. “We just don’t tolerate any kind of discrimination in the group.”

The influx of talent coming out of collegiate and high school club teams keeps the Trout young. 

“Twice a week, I have to put on a speedo and get in a pool and swim up-and-back against 20-somethings,” Valentine said, laughing. “I really want to do that and I really want to beat them.”

Photo: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC