On the South End Rowing Club “Pride Swim”

This Sunday is the annual South End Rowing Club “Pride Swim,” a short ~1.2 mile flood-assisted swim from “Coghlan Beach” (fronting the Golden Gate Yacht Club) to the SERC beach. It is one of many LGBT Pride-related sporting events in San Francisco, the Proudest among cities, and one in which I will Proudly take part.

Course route: "Coghlan Beach" to SERC
Course route: “Coghlan Beach” to SERC

Recently long-time SERC member Daniel M. sent the following message to the club email list, detailing some interesting history, placing SERC in the context of gay rights, AIDS, and the progressive tradition of San Francisco.

This email is one of many reasons I am Proud to be a South Ender.

Full names have been abridged in the interest of privacy.

This “Pride Swim” Sunday is in and part of a great progressive tradition of the SERC.  So everyone knows, in the early 1980s, Rich “Richy” P. was an out front gay member of our club and always stood up for gay rights.  He was a swimmer and a rower.  I met and befriended him in 1984 when I joined the club as I was immediately drawn to him as one of the most progressive members of our club at the time. There were still some male members of the club who hated the fact that the club was now integrated with women let alone open gays like Richy.  Richy also stood up for women’s participation in all aspects of the club and got into public verbal combat with other male members who were openly misogynist.

Sadly his lover was one of the first people who contracted the “gay cancer” which later became know as AIDS.  He was also a member of the club but I didn’t know him that well. If my memory serves me correctly, I believe his first name was Kevin.  He came into the sauna near the end of his life one day looking like a refugee from a WW2 fascist death camp.  We couldn’t figure out why he was so bone thin and didn’t want to embarrass him by asking.  Richy told us later what was going on and many club members, both men and women, came out in open emotional support of both of them.

There was a lot of fear about how AIDS was spread at the time so putting down the false rumors and standing by Richy continuing to be allowed in the club was super important.  He had a “bummer sticker” on his locker which had a slogan “SILENCE = DEATH” in the middle of a large pink triangle.  Amazingly, Richy never contracted AIDS and for years he gave his blood weekly so scientists could study why his immune system had resisted the AIDS virus.  As South Enders we were convinced that it was because he swam in the bay!!  He was too!!

Later in 1980’s, Richy lead many club members, including myself, to participate in the Gay Olympics, invented in San Francisco back then of course and which was open to both gay and straight amateur athletes.  I believe Richy was also a charter member and organizer of the Gay Olympics.

We did the swim division and, like the swim you will do Sunday, it was great fun!!!  It was also important as the USOC filed a law suit against Gay Olympics saying that it owned the right to word “Olympics” because they did not want gay people to use it.  The case went all the way to the reactionary Reagan Supreme Court at the time which upheld the USOC complaint. However, it did not stop the growth of what is now called and widely celebrated as the “Gay Games”!

Richy moved away from SF in the early 1990’s and I lost, sadly, lost contact with him. I do not know it he is still an “out of town member” of the club.  I hope is doing well where ever he is.

Given all this, it might be appropriate to celebrate Richy P. this Sunday…maybe name the swim after him in the future.  He did allot for all our democratic rights and participation in our club as well as gay folks “back in the day” when that was extremely hard to do.

Respect and Appreciation for our club doing this “Pride Swim” Sunday.

Who is Ashby Harper?

Ashby Harper was the second person to cross the Santa Barbara Channel between Santa Cruz Island and the mainland – and the first to do so by the longer (23.5 mile) route, finishing in Santa Barbara. He did this in 1984, when he was 67 years old.

Princeton senior class picture. Found in the New York Times (6/19/1939) by Morty Berger.

Ashby Harper penned a “jaw-inspiring” article about the swim for Sports Illustrated.

Ashby Harper graduated from Princeton University in 1939, 63 years before I did. He was considered the best all-around athlete of the Class of ’39, earning nine varsity letters — in football, baseball, and (wait for it…) swimming. He trained in a pool that has been lost to history. Dillon Gym pool – considered the “old pool” when I was at Princeton, was not built until 1947. Ashby’s coach was Howie Stepp, whose 163 dual-meet win total was not surpassed until my coach, Rob Orr, came along.

Ashby Harper served as a Navy fighter pilot in World War II, earning the Distinguished Flying Cross and four Air Medals.

Ashby Harper was headmaster of the Albuquerque Academy in New Mexico for 20 years, and took up channel swimming upon his retirement in 1982.

Ashby Harper was the oldest person to swim the English Channel (E to F) from 1982 (when he broke Doc Counsilman’s record) until 2004, when George Brunstad swam the Channel at 70 years old.

Ashby Harper competed in the Manhattan Island Marathon Swim in 1983, 1990, and 1991, at the ages of 66, 73, and 74. In his last MIMS, he was DFL – but still ahead of two DNFs!

Ashby Harper pursued the Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming before the phrase even existed. He would have been the first to achieve it, but his Catalina Channel attempt in 1988 was called off halfway across.

Ashby Harper was described in an Associated Press article in 1988 as “at best… eccentric. At worst… crazy.” And also: “A better word to describe the stately gentleman with the barrel chest might be ‘remarkable.'”

Ashby Harper was inducted into the IMSHOF in 1984.

Ashby Harper was a decorated Masters swimmer, achieving 47 Top Tens in the pool and three All-American honors in the postal swims.

Ashby Harper died in 1992, of an apparent blood clot, just hours after finishing a one-mile Masters open-water race in Greenwich, Connecticut. He was 75. His death merited an obituary in the New York Times.

Ashby Harper died doing what he loved. I wish I could take him out for a beer, or walk with him in the P-rade. He would be 95 now.

From the New York Times (11/15/1938). Found by Morty Berger.