5 min

Pushing the limits of endurance

For Don Smith, HIV is just one of life's challenges

Credit: Christine McAvoy photo

Adversity can be classified in many different ways. For any athlete, it can come in the form of a disappointing performance at an important time, or an unfortunate injury. For queer athletes, it can be much more basic, like finding a safe and comfortable environment in which to compete openly. For queer athletes who are also HIV-positive, just making it up to the starting line can seem like an impossible climb.

Vancouver’s Don Smith knows that climb well. He has been positive for 20 years and is headed to the first Outgames in Montreal, Jul 26-Aug 5. His sport of choice? The gruelling triathlon. As if the event isn’t difficult enough, Smith has also had to battle ignorance on his way to Montreal.

“I went to Australia in November for Ironman Australia [3.8 km swim, 180 km bike and then a full marathon] and it was in a very remote town on the west coast,” Smith says. “I’m very open about being positive. When I fill out the health section of the race questionnaire, I always list that I’m HIV-positive. So when I first got there, I had to meet with the top race officials and they were very concerned. They didn’t know how to handle me. They were worried about what they should tell their volunteers, what information they should disclose and what they should do if something happened to me.

“I think I was the first person they had ever met who was positive,” he continues. “I had to sit down with the officials and convince them that I could in fact do the race, that they weren’t endangered by me in any way, and that their medical team should treat me as if they would anyone else who were injured. After we got by that, and there was a little bit of education, they were very supportive. They saw me on the race course that day and they were cheering me on.”

Smith grew up in the small logging community of Port Alberni on Vancouver Island. As a boy, he found an athletic outlet in that most Canadian of games: hockey.

“I think playing hockey is mandatory being a Canadian boy,” Smith says. “I played in a league until I was 12 or 13 years old, then puberty hit and everyone else grew but me. So I was this little kid at 3’8” and everyone else was huge. It became a matter of self-survival. I did enjoy it, though. I wasn’t particularly good at it, but I did like the whole camaraderie of it.

“My first real athletic endeavour on my own was running, because it was something I could do alone and I didn’t have to belong to a team or anything like that,” he recalls. “When the kids are after you in junior high and high school, it’s a good skill to have. High school for me wasn’t the happiest time of my life. I definitely experienced some homophobia. I think I would have flourished in a more supportive environment, but given the time and the place, it just wasn’t like that.”

Like most queers who grow up in small towns, Smith escaped to the city as soon as he could, but not even the open-minded Vancouver scene of the late ’70s and early ’80s could coax Smith out of the closet right away.

“When I came to Vancouver at 19, I was in denial about my sexuality, so it took a while. It really wasn’t a positive lifestyle in Port Alberni,” Smith says. “There was just so much more opportunity in Vancouver to be yourself and try things. Everyone was so open-minded. It wasn’t until I moved and started to get involved with groups like Front Runners that I started to run more and then swim more with the English Bay Swim Club. That’s when I started to turn to athletics more. When I started triathlons, people were always very supportive of me and I’ve been really welcomed. I’ve never experienced any homophobia in the triathlon community. The day I moved to Vancouver was the happiest day of my life.”

Smith came out soon after and found that his sexual orientation ended up helping him athletically more than hurting.

“I think coming out was a bonus for me,” he says. “I’ve met most of my partners through athletics and athletics in general has been a really positive experience for me. It’s a healthy thing to do. The community as a whole is very supportive and health and fitness is very important to me. Especially as an HIV-positive man, it’s extremely important to me that I keep my immune system in top working order.”

When Smith first tested positive in July of 1986, he believed that his athletic life was over.

“The medical community at the time told me that I had two years to live. I thought this was it; cash in those RSPs now and go have fun,” Smith says. “I’ve been very fortunate and life has gone on. I’ve had supportive relationships along the way. Except for a few occasions, my health has been very good. My lifestyle is pretty clean, I like to party once in a while, but I’m very clean. I’m also very health oriented.”

One of the biggest hurdles Smith has had to face hasn’t come from any triathlon or road race, but from the balancing act of testing your limits of endurance and having to deal with the very real battle of living with HIV.

“I’m very lucky that I’m able to push myself to do things like an Ironman triathlon, but it’s a very precarious situation. It’s a fine line and I have to know when to back off and when to just rest. It’s very, very frustrating, especially as you get older. Your recovery time gets longer and longer, plus the effects of the HIV drugs. You really have to work around those factors all the time.

“I’m on a very regimented training schedule and if I miss one of my workouts, its hard for me psychologically because if the drugs have kicked in, or I’m not feeling well that day, then I miss a day of training. Right now, I’m on a four week cycle; three weeks where I build in intensity, and then one week off to rest. I do something every day or twice a day. I do a minimum of two swims, two bikes, two runs plus core training per week, so I don’t have a lot of spare time.”

Like all queer athletes, Smith had to choose between competing at Gay Games VII in Chicago (Jul 15-22), the Outgames in Montreal, or both. But for Smith, it was an easy decision to make.

“I am definitely going to Montreal, and my main reason is political,” Smith says. “HIV-positive people are not allowed to travel to the US and that really irritates me to no end. They do have a special wavier that allows people to compete in the Chicago Gay Games, but you have to make yourself public to apply for it. Then you’re on record as being HIV-positive and permanently banned from the US. So for that reason, I’m staying home. I’m supporting Canadians and going to Montreal.”

Smith will be a part of Team Vancouver in Montreal and he says that being part of the larger queer athletic community is what the games are all about.

“It’s an honour to be able to participate with athletes of such a high calibre. The spirit of inclusiveness is incredibly important to me,” Smith says. “I grew up in a small town where you were on your own and if you were out you were treated as a sub-minority, so the feeling of inclusiveness is very, very powerful. The fact that you don’t have to have a qualifying time–you can just go out and do your personal best–makes me very happy.

“The Outgames, to me, is developing a whole sense of community. It’s bringing people from all over the world. Whether you’re involved in the cultural aspect or with sports, you can join that collective. It’s all about the sense of being together, it’s such a powerful experience, I can’t wait.”