When Gay Games 9 begins in less than a week in downtown Cleveland, two United Church of Christ national staff members will be among the 9,000 participants. Sandy Sorensen and the Rev. Mike Schuenemeyer will run, swim and golf in the spirit of competition against other athletes from across North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand from Aug. 9 to Aug. 16 – all to demonstrate the UCC commitment to inclusion, diversity, justice and human rights.
"I'm really excited about the opportunity to participate in the Gay Games, and just having the opportunity to compete with other members of the LGBT community," said Sorensen, director of the UCC's Justice and Witness Ministries office in Washington, D.C. "I don't have particular goals in mind. Being there and participating is exciting for me. It's a chance to celebrate sports and the LGBT community in Cleveland, where our UCC headquarters are."
The Gay Games, one of the most inclusive sports and cultural festivals in the world, was created in 1982 to promote LGBT inclusion and excellence in sports. The Games include 35 sports (from darts to triathlon, bowling to softball) and 2 cultural events (band and chorus), a festival village, social events, an interfaith worship, and opening and closing ceremonies.
The Gay Games are open to anyone 18 years or older, regardless of their athletic ability, sexual orientation, age, gender or race.
"I never really considered competing before," said Schuenemeyer, the UCC's executive for health and wholeness advocacy, who plans to golf and swim in several events. "I've known about them but hadn't thought about doing it until it came to Cleveland."
Sorensen wanted to compete in the Gay Games as a way to celebrate sports and equality, and for the sense of accomplishment that comes with finishing a race.
"There is so much I do in my work life that doesn't always have measurables – working for social change, there are things that don't always come to fruition in a lifetime," she said. "But running a race gives me a sense of completion."
Sorensen is running a 10-kilometer race (about 6.4 miles) on Monday, Aug. 11, and has competed in several races before.
"I've run several 10Ks, and I've actually run two marathons, a half-marathon and a couple of 10-milers. Since I had, two years ago, a serious intestinal problem, I have just been getting back to my distance runs. So this is part of my 'coming-back.'"
A runner in the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C., on two occasions and the Cleveland half-marathon, Sorensen loves the "community aspect" of distance running "with people coming out and supporting you as you run."
Sorensen, who turns 51 on Aug. 9, hasn't been a runner her whole life, and only took up the activity a within the last few years.
"I had heard stories from other people who found it enjoyable and it strengthened them," Sorensen said. "That gave me inspiration to try it, so I started with smaller races, like 5Ks, and worked up from there."
One of the main things that peaked Schuenemeyer's interest in becoming a participant in the Gay Games is his enjoyment of athletic competition in the pool and on the golf course. The golf competition will put players on the golf course at Firestone Country Club in Akron – the same course that hosted a PGA Tour event last weekend.
"I love to play golf. I'm not a great golfer but I enjoy it, and the opportunity to play at Firestone was attractive to me," Schuenemeyer said. "In terms of swimming, I started after heart surgery a few years ago. It's been a great release and gets me into good shape."
In the swimming events, Schuenemeyer is eying to compete in the 50- and 400-meter freestyle and the 200 breaststroke in individual races. In relay events, and part of a team of four swimmers, he plans to swim the 800 freestyle relay and the 200 medley relay, an event that combines all four of the swim strokes (backstroke, breaststroke, butterfly and freestyle).
Schuenemeyer, on sabbatical this summer, has used the time away from the office to train for the golf and swimming competitions. He spends some days playing a round of golf, working on his swing so he is ready to take on Firestone, a club that features 54 holes and has hosted four PGA Championships.
"I try to train at least once a day or every other day," he said. "I will swim around 2,500 meters and go through the various strokes, and try to build up endurance and speed in the pool."
While in Australia for one week during the International HIV-AIDS Conference in Melbourne, Schuenemeyer kept up his training by finding a public pool in which to swim.
Held every four years, the Gay Games have been hosted by some of the world's greatest cities, including San Francisco, New York, Sydney, Amsterdam, and Chicago. The most recent previoius installment of the games took place in Cologne, Germany, in 2010, and Paris will host the games in 2018.
The United Church of Christ became the first religious denomination to be a major sponsor of the Gay Games when the event comes to Cleveland, and looks forward to welcoming thousands of like-minded visitors from around the world to its hometown.