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    The Shavings of an Almost Olympian

    By John Chen–

    Did you know that competitive swimmers shave their bodies? Many of them are not naturally smooth like me and many of my Asian brethren. And yes, they shave pretty much almost everything, almost. And no, swimmers don’t prefer having smooth bodies unless they are competing where their smooth skin creates seamless friction caressing along velvety water canals ultimately achieving the intimacy of oneness. In other words, smooth skin reduces drag and enables maximum efficiency and speed gliding through water.

    Meet Mike Reilly, a former Olympic caliber swimmer who shared the importance of shaving, his experience with elite competition, and his foray as a supporter of our LGBT community. Mike grew up in a championship pedigree family in Long Island, New York, where his Irish parents and siblings earned All American status in various collegiate sports and academics. As a youngster, Mike loved being in, around and under water. Swimming became a natural and perfect match for this active child and provided structure—a consistent regimen of daily practices and weekend meets. By age 12, Mike was a veteran of swimming competitions and boasted elite times and finishes in the backstroke and the butterfly.

    With great hopes of making the U.S. National Team and eventually representing our nation in the Olympics, Mike ran into several obstacles, one of them named Michael Phelps, winner of an Olympic record 23 gold medals in swimming. Back then, the U.S. swimming program sported a log jam of elite talent making Mike’s Olympic road extremely challenging. Wanting to make his mark and his parents proud, Mike turned to his Irish roots and made the Irish National Team on track to represent Ireland in the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

    Life as an elite swimmer in Ireland was a lonely one. Mike trained all day and faced the prospect of being home schooled. A once gregarious and social teenager, Mike felt isolated while staring at the bottom of the pool for hours on end. This kind of solitary life was not what Mike wanted and had intended. That first summer in Ireland, Mike ventured out and discovered a whole world beyond swimming, a world where kids could just be kids and have fun. The lure of living versus suffocating became an easy choice and Mike quit competitive swimming, but not entirely.

    Sunny and warm Southern California was a natural fit for Mike who boasts golden blond hair, handsome surfer looks and a “Valley” intonation. Mike wanted to continue to swim competitively in college, but not be consumed by the sport. At the University of Redlands, close to Los Angeles, Mike carved out a great balance between swimming on his college team, his studies and campus life. College was also where Mike discovered the vitality and strength of the LGBT community.

    Although the swim team had a few openly gay athletes, Mike noted that the issue of sexuality never really came up or was a concern for the team. Competitive athletics in individual sports such as swimming is very much merit based, and sexual orientation and identity don’t really come into play. In addition, having a gay but conservative roommate helped Mike to understand some of the struggles and challenges of coming to terms with one’s identity and coming out.

    In his senior year, Mike—in support of his roommate finally coming out—went with him on a tour of West Hollywood, which Mike affectionately called a fun “outing parade” for his friend. The first timers to “Boys Town” were promptly introduced to what Mike described as an incredibly positive vibe of the LGBT community where people “celebrated who they are rather than whom they have sex with.”

    Fast forward to the present, when Mike’s affinity for celebration of who individuals are led him to make San Francisco his permanent home. His philosophy also parlayed into forming a strong bond with the LGBT community. You can often find Mike working out, socializing and doing community work in the Castro, in particular for Impulse SF, a group dedicated to educating sexual health because, guess what, Mike believes very much in being safe, no matter who you are.

    From an almost Olympian to an ally of the LGBT community, Mike certainly represents the positive changing landscape of people’s views on self-identity. Proud to sport a natural hairy coat, although a bit sparse, Mike chooses to celebrate who he is. Nowadays, Mike parlays his competitive focus and discipline into a successful career and swims at community pools in San Francisco. Although he doesn’t really need to shave, Mike may do so if it is for a worthy cause.

    John Chen, a UCLA alumnus and an avid sports fan, has competed as well as coached tennis, volleyball, softball and football teams.