(This article was published in 2003).
In 1999, Mark Welsh and a friend were getting some laughs from one another imagining the most ridiculous ideas for a team of athletes they could come up with. The visuals they conjured up, particularly of the drag queen relay team, were priceless.
What came out of it were the seeds of Team Flame, a team of openly gay professional athletes. For the last two years, they have attained corporate sponsorship money for their members, offered emotional and professional support, and have been a visible presence of gay men and women in the heterosexual world of professional sports.
Welsh, 28, isn’t just the founder of Team Flame, he’s also a member. Welsh has been an active triathlete for almost a decade. When he isn’t hunting down sponsors for Team Flame or teaching aquatics at a local sports club, he’s swimming 10 miles, running 35 miles, and biking 150 miles every week. And that’s not including the yoga.
It wasn’t always all bikes and Speedos for Welsh. During his sophomore year at Purdue University in Indiana, he was, at 5-feet-11, a "small" 125 pounds at best. That year he was inspired by a triathlon he saw on ABC. Running, swimming, and biking. He could do that. Well, two-thirds of them anyway - at the time, Welsh didn’t swim.
A girl friend (that’s two words), started teaching him how to swim, and swim fast. He also started taking an Outward Bound Mountaineering class to gain weight and get into shape. And in the summer between his junior and seniors years as a Boilermaker, Welsh ran his first Triathlon in his home state of Wisconsin.
Nine years, 33 more pounds and a qualification for the National Championships later, Welsh is living in San Francisco and making an impact outside of his own pair of Nikes. While continuing to aim for the Olympic team in 2004, he is building an organization that is unique.
That unique aspect is something that Welsh hopes to play up more. He is well aware of the stereotype in the straight community that gays can’t be athletes as well. Welsh also sees that stereotype propagated in the gay community, where athletics are often discouraged.
If anyone can understand the aversion some have to sports, it’s Welsh. While growing up a scrawny kid in the Midwest, he was inspired to become a distance runner in 1984 by Joan Benoit Samuelson’s victory in the first ever Olympic women’s marathon. He got to run a year of junior varsity cross-country, but personal family problems resulted in having to live with foster families between Indiana and Wisconsin for his high school years. With all of the emotional turmoil in his life at that time, he lost his self-confidence and his will to run.
He later found that self-confidence again, and has become a high performance athlete after years of hard work. With Team Flame he hopes to "demonstrate to the gay community that’s it’s possible to be gay and be an elite athlete. We’re here to facilitate that and to mentor up and coming athletes."
Team Flame has an active membership of five professional and elite amateur athletes, including Welsh. All of them are openly gay and all individual sport athletes - three triathletes, a distance runner, and a sprinter. Welsh hopes to attract athletes in team sports as well, but no active athletes have come out in the U.S. as of yet.
With nicknames like "Fever Blister," "Sizzle Lean," and "Sister Singe," one can see the underlying current of humor on Team Flame. Welsh insists that, in pro sports, you have to keep your sense of humor. And particularly with Team Flame, he wants "to be clear that we’re not just flamers, but we’re not afraid to be flamers, either."
A big piece of what Team Flame does for its members is help identify sponsorship money. For many individual sport athletes, sponsorship money translates into the ability to travel to, and enter in, races and competitions. When Team Flame was originally founded, this was a huge concern for Welsh, being a gay athlete.
"I was concerned when looking for sponsors," Welsh says. "I started asking myself, do I include Gay Games in my resume?"
To Welsh’s pleasant surprise, it didn’t take him long to find Team Flame’s first sponsor, Sports Basement, a sporting goods store in San Francisco. Since then, he has secured sponsorships from companies such as Clif Bar and Speedo. Welsh even admits, "I think my sexuality has helped with some sponsorships." A strong statement from someone who was concerned as to whether he’d be able to get them at all.
With more talk about gay professional athletes recently, Welsh is starting to see another need for Team Flame--advancing the notion among closeted athletes that it’s OK to come out.
"It’s a call to them to come out and come together," Welsh says. "I haven’t gone through that much, but reading what other athletes (Billie Jean, Martina) have had to go through, wouldn’t they like to have had a mentor to help them?"
There are a couple ways Welsh is trying to accomplish this. He is trying to reach out to athletes, either active or retired, to help mentor those closeted athletes who are maybe just now wondering if there’s a career after the door to the closet is opened. In the last couple of months, he has been contacted by a former Division I coach about doing just that.
Also, Team Flame is reaching out to colleges and universities, and the NCAA. This, Welsh hopes, will help develop a more gay-friendly environment in sports before athletes enter the world of professional sports.
"I think it’s kind of sad that Martina, Billie Jean, and Louganis had to come out after their careers were over. I think it’s important to have an organization out there to help an athlete deal with their sexuality while they are still active pro athletes."
In the next year, Welsh will be focused on training and racing to make a run at the U.S. Olympic Team in 2004. For Team Flame, he’ll be looking for more sponsors and team members, and hoping that Martina gives a call soon.