About five years ago, Lou Tharp was looking for a place to train in preparation for various international swimming meets. He went to The United States Military Academy at West Point, knowing that the Army has great facilities, and asked a colonel if he could work out there. She agreed.
And so started Tharp's association with the Army.
Tharp, who is openly gay, was training one day near a cadet with horrible form in the pool. Tharp offered to help the youngster, giving 30 minutes of free advice.
The cadet returned the next day with another cadet who also needed swimming tips.
And so started Tharp's association with the Army's swimmers.
During the 2006-07 season, Tharp was named the swimming coach for the Army's Triathlon Team, a group of 20 world-class athletes dedicated to becoming national champions. They compete in meets that consist of a 1.5-kilometer swim, a 40-kilometer bike ride and a 10-kilometer run.
The Army triathlon team finished fifth at the 2007 Collegiate Nationals.
'I never envisioned this [ job ] ,' said Tharp, who started swimming 11 years ago at age 45 to combat issues with weight gain, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
Tharp's swimming success has its roots in Total Immersion Swimming, a New York-based organization.
He passes his swimming tips to the cadets through word of mouth, of course, and through daily e-mails after every practice. Tharp just published Overachiever's Diary, a compilation of e-mails, thoughts and travels with the team. The book is a how-to for competitive or fitness swimmers, and details Tharp's sometimes unorthodox training methods that helped propel the team to international elite status.
'The primary purpose of the book is to let triathletes, particularly swimmers, know that the same kind of high-level training that is available to elite athletes is available to everyone,' Tharp said. 'You can participate in the same kind of training as world-class athletes.'
A portion of the sales of the book will be donated to the Army Triathlon Team, and Tharp said that portion will increase when LGBT soldiers are able to serve openly.
Ah, yes. The Army, of course, still practices Don't Ask Don't Tell, though being gay has never impacted Tharp at West Point. He made it clear from day one that he is gay and that he is not a supporter of the Army's stance toward and gays and lesbians.
Surprisingly, Tharp said his sexuality has 'never, ever' been an issue. And he even brings his partner to team functions.
'For a lot of the cadets, I think I am the first gay man they have ever known,' Tharp said. 'A lot of the senior-ranking officers who are my age … Many don't hate gay people; it's just that, for the majority of their lives, they've just heard negative things about gays and lesbians. As they get to know me, the anti-gay comments are just based on things they've heard. They are very, very accepting people. I have not met one person who has led me to believe that they were anything but very genuine in their relationship with me.'
Tharp said he has had cadets talk to him about being gay; however, none on the triathlon team has.
The 216-page book features more than 100 photos, taken by parents and team members. The Army refused his request to support the book, giving no explanation, but it didn't prevent him from publishing the book with the cooperation and support of the team. Tharp confirmed he already has started compiling material for a second book.
Tharp has competed in past Gay Games, including the 2006 events in Chicago, with one gold and two silver medals to his credit. In Chicago, he competed in five races.
'I walked away from the [ Chicago Games ] very happy,' Tharp said. 'The event was very, very competitive, and I was so impressed with the event overall.
'I really couldn't believe how pro-gay the city of Chicago is. It just blew me away.'
To order Tharp's book, go to: www.overachieversdiary.com .
Getting To Know
... Lou Tharp
Hometown: Nyack, N.Y.
Grew up in: Baltimore
College: Butler University, graduated in 1972
Status: Partnered for 24 years to Jim Bumgarden, 51
It's a fact: Endowed the first-ever scholarship at Butler for gay and lesbian students, starting in the fall of 2008.