Profile by Dave Lin
Growing up, Kent Lau was fascinated with water. From playing in the beaches of Taiwan and splashing in the bathtub, to being obsessed with keeping fishes as pets, he always sought out ways to be surrounded by it. It may come as quite a surprise, then, that Kent–the Swim Coach for FRNY’s Multisport Mondays-wasn’t really a swimmer until much later in life.
In fact, although Kent’s father was on the basketball, tennis, volleyball and soccer teams, Kent says that he just didn’t get the athletic gene at all. And when he did make an effort to play sports growing up, he often felt that he did not live up to his father’s expectations.
That changed, though, when Kent discovered running in high school, specifically track running. Not only did Kent enjoy sprinting, he was great at it. “I’m all fast twitch,” says Kent, whose specialty was distances between the 100m and 800m. “And I loved how track running was all about technique and form.” But the journey from a high school track runner to the Front Runners Swim Coach was a long one-separated by over 30 years of trying to find himself, both as an athlete and on a personal level.
When he was just four, Kent and his family moved from Taiwan to the suburbs of Toronto. He was a shy child, feeling closer to his sisters than he did to his classmates. “I had friends, but mostly kept to myself.” It didn’t help that he knew very early on (around first grade) that he had an attraction towards other boys.
Things changed for the better when he went to college at Harvard. “That’s where I blossomed…There couldn’t have been a better place to be involved politically,” Kent explains. He was involved in the Gay Students Union and serving on the board as Publicity Co-Chair. And he spent his free time volunteering at a local AIDS organization.
It was during college that Kent came out to his family-which wasn’t exactly a smooth process, Kent recalls. While his father didn’t say much, his mother “spent four hours on the phone crying.” The process was compounded by the fact that Kent was the only son in a Chinese family with traditional values. His sisters provided a lot of support, however. And today, he continues to be extremely close to his sisters, and a terrific uncle to five nieces and nephews.
Kent also found his first love in college. The boy, who Kent met at a Harvard Queer Nation meeting, was year ahead of Kent, and moved to New York upon graduation. After two semesters spent commuting between New York and Cambridge, Kent finally moved to the big city when he himself graduated.
The move to NYC wasn’t exactly smooth. For six months, Kent couldn’t find a job that made use of his design degree. He finally decided to take a volunteer position with the Gay Games. That eventually led into a full time job as Assistant Design Coordinator with the Games. While it was an entry level position, Kent got his foot in the door at a major LGBT organization, and got to work directly with photographers, designers and writers. “For 20 years, I worked nonstop.” He soon parlayed his job at the Gay Games to gigs at HX Magazine, Out Magazine, and POZ magazine.
Eventually, the publishing industry took a hit, and Kent found himself starting his own creative directing business. As a Creative Director, Kent produces all sorts of creative projects, such as photoshoots, websites, and graphic design. As his own boss, Kent now relishes the opportunity to set his own hours and choose his projects, allowing him the time to attend swim competitions and, of coach, coach FRNY swim workouts.
But it wasn’t until 2002, at the age of 40 and newly single, that he first started swimming regularly. He had heard that New York’s gay swim team, Team New York Aquatics (TNYA) was holding free introductory practices. He decided to give it a try, and immediately realized that he had a lot to learn. After three months of attending the TNYA workouts, he suffered several severe bouts of cramping and hypothermia, and realized that he actually hated long distance swimming. He ended up quitting the team.
Six months later, he randomly ran into one of his former TNYA teammates at Therapy, who “shamed” him into going back. Kent returned, this time intent on avoiding the cramping and hyperthermia he experienced before. He doubled down on Gatorade, bananas and pre-workout stretching, while drinking hot water and wearing two swimcaps during the workouts to avoid getting cold. The efforts worked. Eventually, fellow TNYA member and Front Runner Onesimo DeMira convinced him to start competing in swim meets. To prepare, Kent took “every conceivable stroke clinic” and refined his form for two full years before finally attending his first meet. It was the Metro Championships, and Kent swam on a relay team. “After the meet,” Kent recalls, “the Head Coach came up to me and handed me a silver medal!” He was instantly hooked.
Meanwhile, a small cadre of joint FRNY/TNYA members was slowly trying to get Kent to return to running. Tom Malcolm encouraged Kent to check out the Armory track workouts and Kelsey Louie’s coaching. But it wasn’t until about two years ago that Kent first dipped his toes in Front Runners-in the FRNY pool, to be precise. At that time, Onesimo was substitute coaching the Monday Night FRNY swim workouts, and told Kent that he should consider helping to coach as well. As a result, Kent called Multisport Coordinator Rachel Cutler, who had him come in and help coach Lane 1. The rest is history, and eventually Kent became FRNY’s official swim coach.
“Monday is now my favorite day of the week,” Kent says of his position as Swim Coach. He says that coaching is a lot of work, but the rewards are huge. “The idea of passing on what I know, the great coaching I received, that’s what drives me every week.” Especially in a group such as the FRNY swimmers, where the range in abilities is so wide, Kent says that he loves seeing each of the new swimmers reach a new milestone, or understand a new technique. “There’s something about Front Runners,” Kent explains, “people are all so athletic-even if they’re not swimmers-that it’s such a pleasure to be able to coach them.”
So…. has becoming the FRNY Swim Coach led Kent to start running again? “I’ll always be a track runner,” he says. Since joining Front Runners, Kent has shown that he is indeed very comfortable and capable on the track. He was a regular at the Armory indoor track workouts last year, and for the past two years was part of the all-Gaysian 10x5x200 track relay at NYRR’s Thursday Night at the Races. “And there’s a strong probability that I’m going to do triathlons.”
You’d never know this by looking or talking to him, but Kent will be celebrating his fiftieth birthday this coming November. Yet with a half-century of experience behind him, Kent shows no signs of slowly down. In fact, after trying for seven years, Kent recently received his very first individual medal at the IGLA swim meet (International Gay and Lesbian Aquatics)-a bronze in the 200m breast stroke.
Does this mean that Kent will start running some road races? “I definitely can see myself doing some short distance races, like 5Ks and 4-milers.” That should make our award-winning Men’s Vets team very excited (or nervous). “People’s perceptions of age-I find it very intriguing,” Kent explains. “I just medaled for the first time as a 50 year old. Who’s to say I won’t be running my first marathon at 60?”