It's been an emotional roller-coaster, filled with tears, cheers and fears. It's been a 30-year journey, anchored by two milestones this summer that will, no doubt, tug even harder at Sara Waddell Lewinstein's heartand that of the worldwide LGBT sporting community, too.
The inaugural nine-day Gay Gamesfounded by Lewinstein's former husband, Dr. Tom Waddellstarted Aug. 28, 1982, in San Francisco, with Tina Turner performing at the opening ceremony. The event drew 1,350 participants plus 300 cultural participants for 16 sports.
Gay Games II in 1986 draw 3,500 participants from 17 countries for 17 events.
Waddell died of complications of AIDS July 11, 1987.
Gay Games III, held in Vancouver in 1990, drew 7,300 participants, representing 39 countries, for 27 sports.
Gay Games VII in Chicago attracted nearly 11,000 participants representing nearly 70 countries.
Gay Games IX is in Cleveland in 2014and 10,000 participants are expected, or more, with about 35 sports offered.
"It doesn't seem like 30 years. To hear 30 years, I'm taking it personal," said Lewinstein, a lesbian. "All I have to do is look at [daughter] Jessica and I remember the years. She's going to be 29 [this year.]
"Every five and 10 years are big milestones. The fact we're going into Gay Games IX is really exciting. To have the Games, [with its] philosophy, the passion go on for men and women from around the world, and what it has to offer, it's just phenomenal."
Lewinstein, now 57, lives in the Bay Area with her partner of 14 years, Sandra Ghilarducci. Jessica also lives in the Bay Area and works in public relations for Gameloft.
Both will be in Cleveland in 2014.
Lewinstein said Waddell would be "ecstatic" that his visionthe Gay Gamesis stronger than ever.
"He definitely provided a civil-rights movement for our culture," Lewinstein said. "I think he'd say, 'Let's go back to the quality instead of the quantity of how many sports are actually participated in.' He'd be so proud of the Gay Games, and [there's] no reason he shouldn't be.
"I miss him dearly and there isn't a day that goes by that I don't think about him.
I miss him as a team player with me, and a great number of others who also aren't with us anymore. They were so passionate; they really loved the Gay Games. … It's sad that we've lost so many. At the same token, there are so many who have survived longer than they were told [they would] because of participating in the Gay Games."
Lewinstein said the biggest challenge now facing the Games is increasing the number of women participating. In fact, she said, "Outreach to women has been very, very important since day oneand I think it needs to be continued. It takes 10 times more effort to get a woman to participate [in the Games] than it does a man."
Despite the growth of the Games over the past three decades, it also has coincided with HIV/AIDS, which has had such a dramatic impact on the event and its participants, starting with Waddell, who competed in the decathlon at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. He was diagnosed with AIDS in 1985 and died within two years.
"We lost some of our best people from HIV/AIDS; they were comrades of mine," Lewinstein said. "I now have very few [friends] alive from Gay Games I and Gay Games II. I feel like I carry a torch for so many; it's unbelievable.
"It's not really what HIV/AIDS did to the Gay Games in particular, though it certainly affected [the Games.] It's what AIDS did to our community. HIV/AIDS took away some of our best people; it really hurt our culture, our community."
She added, "Tom's death was the icing on the cake after we lost so many others before him. Tom's death was devastating. To be truthful, I almost hated the Gay Games at that point because we had put so much energy, so much time and so much money into it. I almost wanted to quit as a board member and sports director [when he got sick]. It took everything to keep it going."
Lewinstein managed the largest bowling alley in the Bay Area until April when it lost its leaseand bowling was one of her strengths in Gay Games competition. In fact, Lewinstein hasand wonthe first Games gold ever awarded.
Lewinstein has six total bowling medals and eight gold medals from women's competitive softball, some for participating and some for coaching. She got her last softball gold in 2010, in Cologne, from the German team that wonbecause her team was not there.
"We won the gold [at the 1982 Games] and then I went to [support the] powerlifting event," Lewinstein said. "I walked in [to that event] as the [Games'] sports director, and the place was jammed. I was so happy that there were so many people there, and I still get chills thinking about it. Next thing I know, they stopped the powerlifting [event] and gave me a standing ovation. It still brings tears to my eyes."
"Because I was wearing the very first [Gay Games] gold medal," she said. No one had seen the medals yet, until I walked in wearing mine … it was absolutely sensational the way everyone responded!!!
More from Sara Waddell Lewinstein:
"When the Games started, computers weren't too prominent. Look where we are now on a technology front."
"I envy every city, state and country that has hosted any of the Gay Games."
On the upcoming 25th anniversary of Waddell's death in July: "I think about him every day, [so] it doesn't seem like 25 years." She kisses pictures of him and her late mother at home every day.
"I felt it was my responsibility to carry Tom's vision, and the vision of so many others, who have passed."
"Whenever I do anything for the Games, I feel like I have Tom and so many other souls with me. I carry them with me and it's given me the strength to carry on this far."