“Runners to your marks,” the man with the pistol dangling from his right hand called.
I stared at the finish line 100 meters in the distance. My hands twitched, and my legs quaked. Searing pain ignited in my left heel and burst through my leg. Nervousness had replaced oxygen in the air, and anxiety filled my lungs with each breath. I pictured the race’s end—myself versus my opponents—and thought: I’m 31 years old, haven’t sprinted in over 10 years, my stomach is rolling over my running shorts, and I’m not gay. What am I doing in the finals of the 100-meter dash at the Gay Games?
Four days later, I stood with athletes from around the world and celebrated the closing ceremonies of Gay Games 9 in Cleveland, Ohio. Cleveland had transformed itself into the world capital for the LGBT community as the Games’ host city, and thousands of athletes and supporters from around the world came to Cleveland to promote equality through an inclusive celebration of sport. During the closing ceremonies, I joined other participants as we held our hands over our hearts and sang along with a gospel rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner. Good vibrations rattled through the crowd, which held a carnival-like energy. A smile creased my lips and tears slipped from my eyes. The silver medal I had won hung from around my neck. I was proud of the Games, proud of Cleveland, and proud of myself for participating.
The Gay Games were conceived in the early 1980s with principles trumpeting participation, inclusion, and personal best. Since their inception, the Games have used athletic competition as a vehicle to educate, alter attitudes towards the LGBT community, and offer a chance to celebrate to many people who might otherwise face persecution or marginalization. Winning matters, of course, but it counts for less than the improvement of one’s self. Personal growth, camaraderie, fun, and self-fulfillment trump winning as the most meaningful bottom lines.
In September 2009, The Federation of Gay Games chose Cleveland, Ohio, as the host city for the 2014 Games. My road to the 100-meter starting line began much later, though, when two Saturdays before the Cleveland games commenced, my girlfriend (a LGBT rights and Gay Games supporter through her involvement with Human Rights Campaign) and close friend tired of listening to stories of my past sports glories and urged me to register. Although that night we chuckled at the notion of me competing, in no way was my registration a joke. The values taught through sports mean too much to me.
My late father, Rob Lytle, played running back for the University of Michigan, finished third in the voting for the 1976 Heisman Trophy, and scored a touchdown in Super Bowl XII for the Denver Broncos. Dad’s athletic genes passed from father to son, and the grind of practices and training defined my youth. I ran my first competitive track meet at age 9 and sacrificed limitless hours every summer to athletic competitions. During high school, I qualified for the Ohio High School State Track and Field Meet four times (placing 2nd as a senior in the 200-meter dash) despite twice having reconstructive knee surgery to repair torn ACLs. I sprinted for Princeton University into my junior year before injuries forced me to quit.
Make no mistake, winning was always a goal, but it was never as important as preparing to win through dedication, goal setting, and personal sacrifice. While growing up, sports provided the classroom where I learned modesty and self-respect.
Unfortunately, though, these are the tales of my past while my reality was that of a belly-bulging has-been athlete whose body needed more time to relearn all the training it had spent over 10 years forgetting.
For two weeks, I dragged my athletically over-the-hill body into places it had not traveled in a decade. I dug my old starting block out of retirement, purchased a new pair of track spikes, and completed workouts from my youth.
I ran 8×100 meter sprints one day and 4×150 meter dashes with 6×50 meter cool down runs the next. I sprinted ladder workouts—60, 80, 100, 120 meters up and then back down. I jogged at 5 a.m. every morning, and when plantar fasciitis foot derailed my training, I had a podiatrist inject me with cortisone to numb the pain and let me return to the track. Hell, I even tried acupuncture. My body jiggled during workouts and my foot throbbed, but I charged ahead. I was living a sports movie montage, a battered relic striving for one more day in the sun. And I loved it.
I’m not entirely sure what expectations I had from the Gay Games when I registered, but I know my experiences exceeded them.
I watched a 99-year old woman made of skin, bones, and inspiration set a world record in her 100-meter dash. Her achievement was miraculous, of course, but better was her spirit and the way joy radiated from her face as she celebrated.
On the day of my 100-meter final, a thunderstorm postponed events. During the delay, four forty-something German runners entertained with a routine of song and dance. They remarked later that day that although they had been all over the United States, Cleveland had impressed them as the friendliest city in their travels.
Relaxing after I finished running, I saw an older man in a wheelchair near the finish line and marveled as a wide grin covered his face. He was watching his son and wife hug following the son’s race.
The Games (and Northeast Ohio) welcomed everyone, something that carries added significance when considering the brave individuals from Russia, China, and other nations. For them, participation provided a community that is difficult—and sometimes criminal—to enjoy at home.
I’ve long believed that sports peak in the moments after competition, when athletes exchange the appreciation that only competitors can share. These embraces embody the magic of sport: camaraderie, inclusion, respect, and equality in games that transcend race, gender, and sexuality.
Sports have been part of my DNA since birth, but as an adult, I don’t often have the chance to experience their significance firsthand. The Gay Games gave me this chance, just as they did for so many participants and champions from across the globe.
When emotions pushed tears from me at the closing ceremonies, I welcomed them. I was proud of my silver medal but more impressed with the passion the Games showed—passion in competition, for equality, and in celebration. The Games helped remind me why sports can be so rewarding.
Gay Games, this friend will see you in Paris in 2018.
This article originally appeared on Outsports.com: What a Gay Games Silver Medal Means to a Straight Man