Rafael Montijo learned early on that for some there was a conflict in being gay and an athlete.
"I was in high school, a varsity swimmer, and just figuring out that I was probably gay," he said. "And from listening to people talk and the jokes they would tell, it didn't seem like anyone else was gay like me. I kept very, very quiet. I felt different. I was alone."
But Montijo was not alone. Eight years ago, he and about a dozen other gay swimmers from the West Hollywood area got together and began an openly gay team to compete in local masters meets against other "straight" swimming clubs.
"At first, people would stay away from us," said Montijo, a 41-year-old swimmer specializing in the butterfly and freestyle. "And we would stay in our own little group, no one would come over and say hello. People would give us icy stares as if there was a mystery, something strange, about being gay and an athlete."
Today, the West Hollywood Aquatics Club has a predominantly gay membership of more than 100 swimmers and is considered one of the strongest masters swimming clubs in Southern California. And the team's sense of competition and camaraderie is admired by others in the sport.
"It has taken some time, but now people see us as competitors," said club President Tom Reudy. "Swimming is a clean healthy environment, it is a positive image, one that is different from the image of gay bars and the problems caused by AIDS."
Like other masters programs, the swimmers on the West Hollywood team are people who work regular jobs during the day and attend evening workouts to train for meets sanctioned by the U.S. Masters Swimming organization that are held around the country. The national organization was founded in 1970 and boasts about 30,000 registered masters swimmers age 25 to 90-plus.
The West Hollywood team members range from first-time competitors to swimmers who competed on Olympic and national collegiate levels. In addition to swimming, the club also sponsors a water polo team.
Two weeks ago, West Hollywood Aquatics placed third overall in a regional masters meet against 48 other teams from Southern California. And last weekend, several West Hollywood swimmers placed in a national meet at USC with more than 1,500 swimmers.
Reudy won first place in the 200-yard breast stroke for swimmers 35 to 39, with a time that was 1.5 seconds off the national record.
"Out of all the teams at the regional meet recently, they stand out as a very cohesive unit," Gerry Rodrigues, a coach for Southern California Aquatics, a masters team with more than 350 members. "I don't think it has anything to do with being gay. They are always cheering on fellow teammates and congratulating other teams when they do well."
The next big competition will be in August when a contingent of about 60 West Hollywood swimmers will take part in this year's Celebration '90 Gay Games III in Vancouver, Canada. The event is expected to draw 6,000 athletes from 23 different countries. The games, Aug. 4-11, will feature 29 sports ranging from track and field events to bowling.
"The Gay Games are important, not so much for competition but because it is a large support group," Reudy said. "There will be swimmers from around the world competing, and it's a way to show that we are not just a small group. There will be people coming from around the world."
Team coach, Mark Chatfield, 37, who placed forth in the 200-meter breast stroke in the 1972 Olympics in Munich, said the team has a strong sense of togetherness because it was organized for more reasons than competition and fitness.
"It's social, and it's a way for people to compete in a sport which has always been considered part of the straight world," he said. "The most important thing it shows is that gay swimmers are just like everyone else."
But the team has not won praise from every corner.
Lap swimmers have accused the team of monopolizing pool time at the West Hollywood Park pool. The lap swimmers also criticize the city for putting off a major renovation of the 40-year-old pool so the team can practice. The renovation had been planned for last winter, but will now begin in October.
"The pool is in very bad shape, and if it breaks down, then we will have nothing," said Roslyn Krause, a lap swimmer. "They are letting the pool deteriorate to allow the swim team to practice there. Most of these swimmers don't even live in the city, and they are treating them with favoritism."
Mayor Abbe Land said the City Council wants to do what it can to help the team, which will represent the city in the games. "We are very supportive of the team. It's a good group of people, and we hope they do well," Land said.
Team members say the criticism will not dampen their spirits.
"We are a very close team," said Randy Spicochi, the team vice president. "When one of us has been gone for a while everyone notices it. We are more than just teammates, we are a family."
Part of that closeness comes from the experience of seeing three teammates die from acquired immune deficiency syndrome in recent years.
Montijo said that about 30 team members attended a funeral for one teammate last year.
"It was very hard to realize that he wasn't with us," he said. "Just a year or so before he had been going to swimming meets. He went to the Gay Games II (in San Francisco four years ago) and then he became ill and died last year.
"This is a tight-knit group. It hasn't all been great. Sometimes pain is byproduct of being gay and a swimmer at the same time."