Profiles by Ross Forman
Born & Raised in: Puerto Rico
Undergraduate degree: University of Michigan; Class of 1997
Graduate School: University of Florida
Job: Architecture Intern
Sport: Water polo
For Fun: Enjoys taking care of apartment chores on Saturdays, laying out by the pool on Sundays.
Favorite Orlando clubs: Lava Lounge on Fridays, The Club at Firestone on Saturdays.
It's a Fact: Is an admitted news junkie.
It's Also a Fact: Is a high school water polo referee in Florida.
Hobbies: Politics, 'and arguing about them.'
Quoting Benitez, on the ear-guards worn during play: 'They look funny, but you need them.'
Quoting Benitez, on what hanky-panky happens in the water: 'Honestly, the true water polo players don't even think about that.'
He was, in 1995, a gold medal winner in the Central American and Caribbean Games, representing his native Puerto Rico. A year later, Jose 'Jerry' Benitez was the co-captain of the University of Michigan Big Ten champion water polo club and the National Collegiate Club Champion.
Jump ahead to 2002, when Benitez was in graduate school at the University of Florida. His team was the Southeastern Conference ( SEC ) champion and it finished third at the National Collegiate Club Championships.
Move to 2005, when Benitez played for the Atlanta Rainbow Trout at the 15th annual International Gay & Lesbian Aquatics ( IGLA ) Championships in Atlanta. Sure, his team didn't win the gold, but he had the time of his life—especially because it was a gay tournament, the first he had competed in.
The five-day, mid-July IGLA Championships attracted more than 600 participants and was held at Georgia Tech's Aquatics Complex and the Washington Park Natatorium. The IGLA Championships feature swimming, water polo, diving and synchronized swimming, with athletes of all competitive levels. IGLA is the world's foremost international organization devoted to developing and promoting aquatic sports within the GLBT community, and it represents more than 10,000 athletes in 16 countries worldwide.
'That was an amazing experience,' he said. 'I had a blast; it was a lot of fun. I was surprised at the high level of competition and ran into people from college who I didn't even know were gay.
'It's such a release to be able to do what you love so much in life, water polo, and not be apprehensive or worried how to act, what to say, etc. You can be who you truly are, and meet people like that too … that's an amazing experience.'
That's why at IGLA 2005 Benitez often just hung out on the pool deck, talking to people about water polo or life in general. Sure, the bronzed, muscled physiques weren't anything too rough on the eyes, but it was the overall bonding experience, and the camaraderie developed, that Benitez most remembers.
'I grew up in a very conservative society, and Florida also is very conservative,' said Benitez, who now lives in Orlando. 'I'm really looking forward to the Gay Games next summer. I'm really stoked for the Games, if only just for the experience of getting out of the pool and be able to hug and kiss my boyfriend without any problems or anyone staring or making ( negative ) comments.'
Benitez said he has no idea what to expect next summer, yet the unknown is exciting. In addition to aquatics' events, Benitez plans to watch other sports, and fully enjoy the ambiance of the Opening Ceremony.
'I want to be completely thrilled by the whole event, to be submersed by the event,' he said. 'Water polo has been a part of my life for 20 years. My best friends in high school and college were all water polo teammates. I was frustrated at the fact that, after 20 years, I was not enjoying the experience to the fullest. As a player, coach and referee, I couldn't really be who I was. IGLA changed that; I was liberated. I finally was accepted for who I was in the one consistent thing that had defined my life for the past 20 years. I was, and still am, in a spiritual high because of that. A new world opened up for me.
'That's why I'm really looking forward to the Gay Games, to experience that new world to its fullest, to meet people who have experienced the same emotions throughout life in the sport that has defined them; and to be submerged within the gay lifestyle.
'Most important, I want to share this part of my new life with my partner, who will be accompanying me to the event.'
Ross Forman is a sportswriter based in Buffalo Grove, Illinois. He will be profiling athletes and other personalities associated with the 2006 Gay Games from around the world in his continuing series, 'Countdown to the Gay Games.' Anyone with story ideas, suggestions or comments can email Ross at: Rossco814@aol.com .