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Gay Rower David Alviar Reflects On His Record-Setting Journey

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Houstonian had to overcome homophobia to carry his boyfriend’s engagement ring across the Atlantic.

By Ryan Leach

It was February 7 when David Alviar dropped to one knee and presented a ring to his boyfriend, Stanley Lewis.

Alviar had been thinking about this moment almost nonstop for 49 days. He was certain Lewis would say “yes,” which he did. But their engagement is only a small part of this story.

The real drama took place in the seven weeks preceding that day, when Alviar and two other men rowed across the Atlantic Ocean, setting two world records.

Alviar (r) met his fiancé, Stanley Lewis, when both were members of the rowing team at the University of Texas in Austin. (Max Burkhalter)

Alviar downplays the achievement—part of his humble charm. “We really only [set the records] by default because we were the first team of three to row across the Atlantic, and therefore we are the fastest,” he says.

He may be the only person unimpressed with his accomplishment. The 3,000-mile transatlantic race began on December 14, 2016, in the Canary Islands off the coast of Spain. It ended in February in Antigua, with Alviar’s team first to cross the finish line. The three men celebrated Christmas and New Year’s Eve together. Rowing. Nonstop.

“All I knew was that I had to make it back in time for Valentine’s Day, or I was going to be in trouble.” Alviar says. He had decided that he would propose to Lewis in Antigua before leaving for the race.

“I would take the ring out periodically and look at it,” he says. “I was afraid it was going to tarnish, so I would polish it with Tabasco sauce periodically. It did not tarnish, by the way.”

Part of the Crew

Alviar began rowing in his second year at the University of Texas, when he was catcalled by the school’s rowing team while passing their information table on his way to class. He was looking for a way to connect with the university and its large student population in a more meaningful way. He had tried joining a fraternity and doing typical freshman stuff, but because he was closeted, young, and in a new place, that proved to be difficult—until he discovered rowing.

The 3,000-mile transatlantic race began on December 14, 2016, in the Canary Islands off the coast of Spain, and ended in February in Antigua.

“My sister-in-law was actually a rower, so I knew a little bit about it going in,” he says. “It was a walk-on sport at the University of Texas, so I just showed up along with about 120 other people. Then, after about three weeks, it was down to 40. After about a month, it was down to 20, and finally about 15 to 18 on the team—all through self-selection.”

Despite his athletic appearance, Alviar insists that rowing is a sport for anyone, and he emphasizes that it has helped him deal with many challenges. “Rowing was a conduit that helped me deal with stress, spirituality, and a social life.”

Rowing at UT was also what led to Alviar meeting Lewis. “He showed up and I didn’t pay much attention to him at first, because people show up and then they get bored and leave,” Alviar says. “But Stanley became an excellent rower, and we ended up in the same boat. We would travel together for team trips. Over time, we got to know one another and our relationship developed.”

Their relationship was clandestine—or so Alviar thought. “In hindsight, it was stupid to hide it, because everyone was really so happy for us when we finally came out about it.”

After UT, the couple moved to Houston and both joined Teach for America. Alviar taught for three years at Berry Elementary.

Although he and Lewis lived together as a couple, Alviar still struggled with his sexual identity. Lewis, on the other hand, embraced it. This caused a rift that resulted in the couple separating and losing contact for three years.

“It was sad,” Alviar says. “We would go to team reunions and avoid each other. I dated someone during that time, but that relationship ended because I discovered that life is better in the light. I was actively trying to suppress who I was. When I decided to put roots down in Houston, I knew that I had to make some changes.”

Eventually, Alviar started coaching at ROW Studios in West University Place. Coincidentally, Lewis also coached there, and they reconnected. They’ve been together ever since, and they plan to marry in 2018.

Adventures at Sea

During his time apart from Lewis, Alviar began volunteering as a coach for the rowing team at Rice University. This is where he met crewmate Mike Matson, who introduced him to ocean rowing. The two initially tried to enter the race known as the Talisker Whiskey Atlantic Challenge in 2015, but the cost was prohibitive and Matson was recovering from an injury.

They approached their third crewmate, Brian Krauskopf, who would be able to relieve some of the physical pressure on Matson and also help raise funds to cover the $150,000 cost of the racing boat and supplies. The men decided to enter the 2016 race as a trio. With the help of more than 30 investors and their own hefty investments, they were on their way to Spain. Alviar was the only gay crewmate—which would eventually cause tension on the team and with government officials in Antigua.

Alviar and his crewmates, Brian Krauskopf and Mike Matson, had to raise $150,000 for their boat and supplies. However, Alviar was discouraged from emphasizing his sexual orientation out of fear that it might deter potential donors. (Courtesy photo)

The three men trained long and hard for the race, but spent less time rowing than would be expected. Aside from a few lengthy overnight rows in Galveston Bay, Clear Lake, and Conroe, most of their preparation was through crossfit, strength training, and learning about injury prevention and living on a boat for an extended period. Despite their training, Alviar admits that they still were under-prepared for what they would face.

For this particular race, rowing teams are supported by two sailboats that also travel the route. Teams can call on those sailboats for support, but they risk being removed for health reasons, which would force them to abandon both their equipment and the glory of completing the race. With such a hefty investment, teams often resort to self-treating injuries, which can include broken bones, infections, and bedsores.

Day one of the race is really so surreal,” Alviar says. “You leave and there are kids chanting ‘USA! USA!’ We were taking tons of pictures and were so full of energy. It was around the 48-hour mark that the seasickness started setting in. I remember about five days of just puking our guts out and being so weak. Brian really carried the load during that time because he didn’t get as sick as Mike and I did. Eventually, we were out on the water and we couldn’t see land any longer. We were alone. That’s when the freezing wind and horrible storms came.”

The first two weeks were challenging. When it wasn’t storming, they were in the doldrums. “The water was completely flat,” Alviar says. “There was no wind. We just weren’t moving at all.”

They decided they needed to change their approach. The team switched to intervals of two hours of rowing and two hours of rest, rather than three hours of rowing and only one hour of rest. The accommodations for resting were not ideal, and they slept in a small cabin under the boat. Alviar and Krauskopf paired together during their shifts and rests. The team did everything on the small boat—including the use of a bucket for restroom breaks. To bathe, one of them would jump off the side of the boat while the others looked out for sharks.

“We brought music and podcasts,” Alviar says. “We had some entertainment. Brian had two movies recorded on his device. One of them was The Notebook. He enjoyed the story, I think. I enjoyed Ryan Gosling.”

Alviar was able to make contact with Lewis on a few occasions by using a satellite phone. He tried to keep stories of the journey positive so as not to worry Lewis. “It was great to be able to communicate with him. There were times when the three of us on the boat would go days without talking to each other. When we did, we talked about almost everything, including politics. Being stuck on a boat with a Trump supporter in the middle of the ocean was not ideal, considering what I knew we were coming home to,” Alviar says.

There were also moments that he wouldn’t trade for anything. “I loved it at night, when it was clear and the stars in the sky would reveal themselves. It was breathtaking.

“I would never trade being able to swim in the middle of the ocean and looking down and just seeing this perfectly clear water,” he says. “Sometimes we would have whales that would swim alongside of us, and when we got close to the islands there were dolphins. I remember being amazed at these birds that we would see flying. They would set down in the water for a little while and then take off. They were on the same journey as we were.”

Bringing Home a Ring

Just days prior to their arrival in Antigua, the crew encountered a giant wave that almost capsized the boat. It made the finish more challenging, but the end was in sight—and for Alviar, Lewis was waiting to greet him in Antigua.

“I remember when I got off the boat I could hardly walk,” Alviar says. “I had alerted the race that I was going to propose, because I wanted them to catch the moment. I made it toward Stanley and fell to one knee and proposed.”

The journey took its toll on Alviar’s face, as shown in this before and after composite image, but not his spirit. “There are many adventures still to be had,” he says. (Courtesy photo)

The moment Lewis accepted was broad-cast on the news back home in Houston. The government of Antigua, however, was not as thrilled for the newly engaged couple. “I knew that there was tension between the Antiguan government and the Europeans, because Antigua is a very antigay place,” Alviar says. “They thought the race was being used to promote homosexuality, and they were not happy about it.”

The Antiguan government isn’t the only entity from which Alviar experienced pushback over his sexual orientation. During the fundraising campaign, he was discouraged from emphasizing the fact that he’s gay, out of fear that it might deter potential donors.

“In Texas, we see athletes as these symbols of strength, and as heroes,” Alviar says. “They are almost always straight. That’s the model. That’s why I think it is important for me to be out. That’s why I wanted to share the moment of my engagement with the world. I hope there is a kid out there that sees me and understands that they can be out and an athlete, and they don’t have to fit some mold. It is important to communicate that.”

These days, Alviar is still connected to his educational roots, working in curriculum development. He can also be found, along with Lewis, coaching at ROW. Although he doesn’t see another race in the near future, he’s not ruling it out.

“Stanley says that I am not allowed, but who knows. There are many adventures still to be had,” he says.

Watch a video and view more photos from Alviar’s journey below.

This article appears in the August 2017 issue of OutSmart Magazine. 

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Ryan Leach

Ryan Leach is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine. Follow him on Medium at www.medium.com/@ryan_leach.
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