Swimmer and Activist Combines Two Passions for Unique Fundraising
Like a lot of us, Michael Holtz has been to his fair share of cocktail receptions, black tie dinners, auctions and performances – all earnest fundraisers for equality activism. But, let’s face it, those have become so commonplace that they’re just another day on people’s calendars, and after awhile it’s the same people participating over and over. It’s what most of us have known since we first became active in this community.
Fortunately for us, there often comes along a young person with new energy and new ideas – someone to introduce a new way of thinking about fundraising. Right now that person is Michael
a lifelong swimmer who has challenged people to do more than buy a ticket, put on their best suit and have a few cocktails. He has challenged people to actually get physical!
With last September’s Swim For Equality fundraiser, the 26-year-old positive-thinker with the All-American looks was able to bring together 52 swimmers from six different states for a 1.7-mile swim off the coast of Malibu. The unique fundraiser – which saw involvement from people aged 19 to 70, straight and gay – raised $148,000 for Equality California. Michael came up with the idea after organizing a similar event in New York City in 2009 – a 5K open water swim from Long Island to Fire Island that raised over $100,000 for the Stonewall Community Foundation.
The former investment banker takes pleasure in his new career, which entails combining his love for swimming with raising thousands of dollars: “Now I’m taking people’s money and putting it towards a good cause.”
That love for swimming began at the early age of six, when he followed his older brother into the pool in their hometown of Naples, Fla. Although he hated swimming at first, he soon discovered he was really good at it, and even though the big brother abandoned the pool for the gridiron Michael kept at it.
“I started getting competitive at a young age,” said Michael, who by the age of 13 was experiencing two-hour practice days, which helped him qualify for the Florida Zone team by the time he entered junior high. (The Florida Zone team is an all-star team of sorts that competed against similar teams from other states.)
Michael’s success continued through his teen years at Barron Collier High School, where he was his team’s captain and finalist in Breaststroke and Individual Medley at the Florida State Championships. Florida Swimming & Diving is about as competitive as it gets, so Michael’s impressive times and grades earned him a scholarship to Fordham University in New York City.
It was in New York that Michael really started to become comfortable in his own skin. He admits that his younger days as a swimmer allowed him to focus on winning, rather than confront his sexual orientation.
“Swimming drove my competitive nature. Deep down inside I always knew I was gay, and gay was not right,” said Michael, who gravitated toward sports and other school-related activities in order to make up for what he thought was a deficiency in his private life. But it was his swim team at Fordham that helped him accept his true self. He lived in a “swimming house” off campus with 15 other team members – boys, girls, straight, gay.
“My swim team was so supportive,” he told me. “Everybody on our team had respect for everybody.”
After college it was off to London, where Michael entered graduate school at Cambridge thanks to a Mount Batten Scholarship, which annually awards 100 Americans the ability to study at the prestigious university. While working toward his degree in International Business he worked a full-time job at Deutsche Bank; that is where he first was introduced to swimming as a fundraiser.
He had been out of the pool for 10 months, thanks to a torn rotator cuff that cut short his senior year at Fordham, but the opportunity to cross the English Channel as part of a relay was too good to pass up. The event was a fundraiser for the bank’s charities, and when Michael returned to the States he took the idea and ran – er, swam – with it. He was working as an investment banker in New York City while helping create and organize the first Fire Island swim.
When the financial crisis led to him getting laid off, he took his talents to the left coast, where the ideal job awaited him at Equality California.
“I think it is really cool that I was able to move all the way across the country for this job and use my passions and put them all together,” Michael said of the challenge at his new place of employment. “I got to bring all these things together and get paid for it.”
These days Michael gets to make a difference in people lives, instead of just in their pocketbooks. While his competitive swimming days may be over, he is enjoying taking the love for his sport and turning it into something so positive. And, even more importantly, he now sees that his competition days were not just for him; his story as an out gay – and successful – athlete can stand as an example for young people and others needing such stories.
“Everybody needs to tell their story,” he matter-of-factly stated. “(Our stories) really are a positive impact for youth. There are successful athletes who are gay.” Michael believes gay athletes have the ability to change perceptions and attitudes in ways they may not even realize.
“There’s no law that can ever be written to truly protect people in sports,” he says, meaning the most fundamental change will have to happen for each individual. “The best way to (achieve equality in sports) is to just do it,” is his advice to weekend athletes. “You should never be suppressed about the thing you love.” And beyond being visible, Michael believes the willingness to talk about it is key: “The way there is positive change is through stories.”
Gay athletes can get inspiration from one of Michael’s heroes, NFL linebacker Scott Fujita. The Super Bowl champion and current Cleveland Browns player has repeatedly come out publicly in support of marriage equality. Straight allies such as Fujita may make the difference when it comes to defeating anti-gay measures like California’s Prop 8.
“It really takes a man who believes in equality measures to do what (Fujita) does,” asserted Michael. “He doesn’t have to do that; he’s not benefiting at all.”
Along those lines, Michael and Equality California
have partnered with OutSports
website creator Cyd Zeigler to plan the first-ever gay night at the Los Angeles Clippers on Feb. 2. The Staples Center will host the Chicago Bulls on that night, with tickets, at $20 and $40, available at www.nba.com/clippers/groups/equalitynight.html
. Michael thinks the night will help “take down the walls of stereotypes” and is a rare opportunity for the National Basketball Association to show its support for equality.
third annual Athlete of the Year, Michael Holtz stands for all the things that make our winners special; his personal achievement in his sport is accompanied by his commitment to supporting others and encouraging excellence in the gay sports community. Like New York’s Jeff Kagan and Phoenix’s John Deffee before him, Michael makes Compete
proud to offer this acclaim. We expect to be seeing more from Michael in the coming years.THE MICHAEL HOLTZ FILERESIDES:
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