Earlier this summer, during Pride Month, PQ ran a story on Michael Wheeler. This time, we spoke to him as he prepared to leave for the French capital to compete in the Gay Games. This year they are taking place in Paris. Wheeler, was described on GayCities.net as being “Portland’s Gay Guru.” Enticingly, they also described him as a "sexy single day with no kids."
Before meeting him I wasn't so sure about that moniker but...it's true, from what I can tell. He has a sense of wit which comes through equally in person as it does through interviews. When asked if he had benefactors or sponsors for the trip he modestly replied:
“I am representing just little old me. No sponsors, just a strong will to get out there.”
ProudQueer: I know you are involved with swimming professionally. How long have you been involved in swimming?
Michael Wheeler: I started swimming when I was eight-years-old. My best friend's brother was on a summer league swim team and I told my mom that it looked like fun. At that point I was only half way through swim lessons, I could barely get myself across the pool. After one summer of swim team, I was hooked! But I wasn’t able to leave swim lessons without finishing. I insisted that my mom also keep signing me up for swim lessons so I could finish that too!
PQ: I know you competed in the Portland Bridge Swim along the Willamette River. How many times have you done that swim? Did you place, if it was an awarded event?
MW: The name of the event is the Portland Bridge Swim. I have done it three times now, once solo and twice in a relay. They do award medals to first place in different categories. I have won first place on a relay with a wetsuit and first place for a solo male swimmer with a wet suit.
PQ: You have not gone to Gay Games before. What do they mean to you? We were almost in a time where really representing the community was sort of boo-hooed, as being unnecessary under the last administration? What does competing in something like the gay games represent?
MW: It is my first time and I am a nervous wreck! I stumbled across this event back in college. The 2010 gay games were in Cologne, Germany. I was fresh off a collegiate swim team and looking for competitive outlets. Unfortunately I had missed the event altogether and the next one was in 2014 in Cleveland, Ohio. I remember telling my roommate at the time (and he still is my roommate now) that one day I would compete in the gay games. I sorta pushed sports aside after college and focused on more practical things like love and finding a husband. I got close, but didn't quite make it. And all through those years, swimming was my only constant. My time in the water varied, but it was always something that I found peaceful about it. Some people do yoga to mediate, I swim. So to me, the gay games represents a life time of practice and dedication to a sport that has given me almost everything I am. The fact that it is a LGBTQ+ community event only makes it that much more special to me. I will be meeting hundreds of people who share the same passion and dedication for something and can relate to that struggle. There is something so validating to know people are out there who understand what you are going through. Especially when you are going through something that is tough. It is always import for us as a community to be out and to be proud of ourselves, no matter what the political climate my be.
PQ: What are the dates? How many swims are you going to do? Do you know how many swimmers are competing?
MW: I am only swimming 1 event in Paris on August 6th. I am swimming the 5k Open Water event. It is the longest race option they have for swimming. Of the 10,000+ athletes competing, there are 242 people signed up for an open water swim. I am super pumped to be one of those people.
PQ: What are you most proud of, in being an out athlete?
MW: I think that as an athlete I am most proud that I am out and not shy about it.
PQ: What else do you hope to do in Paris? Are you making it an extended European vacation?
MW: I am going to sit on the lawn of the Eiffel Tower and drink wine and eat a baguette. It is my Parisian tradition. I had already planned a week in Australia the week prior to the games. I figured, since I would be out of the country, why not go all the way around the world! I am flying to Paris from Australia through Singapore. Then I am stopping over in Iceland on my way to Portland. I really want to ride a horse on the beach in Iceland. I think that would be great.
PQ: Are you taking anyone with you?
MW: No, I had to leave him at home unfortunately. But I will be meeting up with some friends once I get to Paris. Some are competing, one just happened to be in the area at the time and decided to tag along.
PQ: Are you working with a coach, to sort of keep you on your toes? [I imagine as an instructor you don't, but I had friends that played tennis & they would occasionally work with someone prior to a big match, competition, etc.]
MW: I have taken an alternative approach to training this time. I work with a personal trainer on land doing lots of dynamic body weight exercises. A friend who is a college swim coach gave me some of his work outs to swim in the pool. And then a few times a week I swim across the Willamette River under the Hawthorne Bridge with a group called the River Huggers. Its a lot a fun and great practice for open water swimming.
PQ: You are very vocal and out. What does it mean to you to be visible as an athlete, at work as well as socially?
MW: If me being out and vocal gives at least one person permission to be their true authentic self, then I did something right.
PQ: Also, do you speak French? I guess I should've asked you that in the article. If you have ant foreign language skills, tell me about that & if you plan to use it while abroad.
MW: I speak horrible French. Just plain awful. The first time I went to France I asked for a glass of water. The waitress gave me a puzzled look and with out missing a beat she says “do you speak English?” I have been trying to expand my vocabulary, but it hasn’t been easy. I have mastered saying “je suis desolé, je suis American. Je ne parle pas Français, tu parles anglais?” Roughly translates too, “I’m sorry that I’m American. Please help me.”
PQ and our extended family of readers and sponsors wishes Michael Wheeler the best of luck! Bon chance en Paris!