Fit for Everyone

Team Saint Louis, an inclusive sports league, welcomes all for fitness, friendship, and fun.

Community

Story By Valerie Schremp Hahn
Visuals By Michael Thomas

It’s a Tuesday night in the gymnasium at St. Louis Community College-Forest Park, and the hits keep coming. 

Eight volleyball teams play on four courts in the gym. A hip-hop remix pumps through the air. Teammates laugh and high-five one another as they bump, set, and spike. 

“If you come in here, the music is pumping,” James Lewis says. “You’re coming for a workout, whether you realize it or not.” 

The teams here cheer for one another. They’re all part of Team Saint Louis, a LGBTQ+ sports league that aims to welcome and include anyone. In addition to the popular volleyball league that plays indoors in spring, Team Saint Louis runs an indoor pickleball league at the Missouri Pickleball Club in Fenton. There are also twice-weekly pickleball socials at Willmore Park in south St. Louis. In May 2024, Team Saint Louis formed a cycling group that meets every evening for rides around the area.

Whether players realize it or not, they’re a part of something bigger.

“That’s the biggest thing of all: that people (who) come here know that it’s a safe space,” says Lewis, the league’s vice president. “And we don’t ever want to change that. It means it’s free from discrimination, completely inclusive. We try to create an atmosphere that no one feels like they need to feel less than themselves.” 

 

Team Saint Louis president Tyson Cameron prepares a pickleball serve on a the rooftop court at The Victor apartment building in Downtown St. Louis.

John Holland has played with Team Saint Louis since 2004, when he moved here from North Carolina after coming out as gay. Everyone supports everyone here, he says. 

“I enjoy the camaraderie and the team,” he says. “I have friends on the other side of the net every night.” 

There’s a fee to play in a league, but pickleball socials and cycling are free. There’s always extra equipment and eager players to help teach and give tips to new players.

Christie Pollihan found the pickleball social group after getting divorced five years ago. She was having a rough time, she says, and wanted to put herself back out there and socialize.  

“I knew they were a gay group,” says Pollihan, who is straight. “I showed up here on night one, and these guys were so welcoming, and just made me feel like I was part of something from day one. It kind of makes me emotional.”

With that, two male pickleball players come over and hug her around the neck, and they laugh. “I just really feel like I fit in here,” she says. “And we laugh and we joke and I come here right after work, and it’s two hours, and I escape everything.” 

Pictured from left to right, top to bottom: Team Saint Louis vice president James Lewis dons a league hat. Team Saint Louis president Tyson Cameron displays a league rally towel.

How the League Works

Lewis and league president Tyson Cameron make a point to welcome anyone who may wander onto the court and want to play. They set up a table courtside for that reason, and one of them typically sits there to act as the welcoming committee.

“So if anybody has a question or a problem or if they’re just coming in, they get to meet us,” Lewis says. “It’s important that we give them a high-five or an elbow. That’s important because that’s the whole bread and butter of the organization, that everyone feels welcome.” 

League players can form their own teams, and teams may only be separated by ability. If someone joins on their own, they will be placed on a team. 

Judging from the volleyball roster, the players have a sense of humor: Team names include Consensual Sets, Good Volley Miss Molly, and That’s What She Set. 

Game winners typically get a coupon to go to Just John in The Grove for a pitcher of beer, which encourages socializing. But the first emphasis is on fitness, since not everyone may be into the bar scene.

Cameron loved playing volleyball when he was in high school but gave it up for his other love, the theater. He’s always been social, he says, and picked up volleyball again to get fit.  

“I was diagnosed with diabetes and I’m allergic to the gym,” he says. “I said, ‘Let me find another way that’s fun and still active,’ and this is my solution.” 

He’s lost almost 40 pounds, and in 2023, was named Mr. Pride St. Louis

Team Saint Louis members play pickleball on the rooftop court at The Victor apartment building in Downtown St. Louis.

Building on a Legacy

Team Saint Louis got its start in the early 1980s, and at different points, the organization offered several different sports. Lewis, upon cleaning out a storage locker of league items, found dozens of photographs of players competing internationally at the Gay Games and other national and international competitions. 

Team Saint Louis was incorporated in 2007. Interest fell off during the 2020 global health crisis. Cameron and Lewis joined the board in 2022, and the group has been working on rebuilding membership by rebranding and spreading the word through social media. 

Lewis redesigned the league’s logo, which they put on banners, stickers, rally towels, and caps. The circular design incorporates the City of St. Louis flag as well as the progress Pride flag, which also represents people of color.

Lewis and Cameron hope to offer kickball and soccer through Team Saint Louis, and fundraise to send pickleball players to compete in the Gay Games in 2030. 

“So our goal is to continue on the legacy,” Lewis says, “and hopefully do our predecessors proud by evolving it into something more and better, and to get more members and to get more people active in the community.”  

Team Saint Louis doesn’t compete with other local leagues that offer sports inclusive of LGBTQ+ communities, as they believe they all offer different activities. Among those other local leagues are the St. Louis Crusaders Rugby Football Club, Arch Rival Roller Derby, and St. Louis Gatekeepers Roller Derby, and STL GLASS, which offers softball. 

Many Team Saint Louis volleyball players play outdoor volleyball with the Rainbow Volleyball League. That’s where Lewis, who played volleyball in college, started playing more than 10 years ago before joining Team Saint Louis for indoor matches. 

They’ve talked with other league leaders about forming an LGBTQ+ sports commission, Cameron and Lewis say. 

A view of the rooftop court at The Victor apartment building in Downtown St. Louis from its patio.

Ethan Barnett, 42, the commissioner for STL GLASS, was involved in Pride St. Louis leadership for several years, and has played volleyball with Team Saint Louis since 2012. 

“I think it’s important for St. Louis to have that designation of being (an) LGBTQ+ friendly city,” he says. “We’ve had that association for quite awhile now. I think that city leaders have done a great job of embracing the community and working for the community.”

He notes that the North American Gay+ Volleyball Association brings a tournament to town in February, and the St. Louis Arch Invitational Softball Tournament will bring players from around the country in September. 

“I think we’ve done a really good job of creating an atmosphere within the city that is welcoming, that is accepting, that is safe,” Barnett says. “And I think that’s really the most important thing.” 

On June 7, Team Saint Louis will be the benefactor of the St. Louis Cardinals game, which is also Pride Night at Busch Stadium.

And, on June 15, Team Saint Louis is hosting its second-annual Love Wins pickleball and tennis tournament in Tower Grove Park, with proceeds benefiting Opportunity House and Team Saint Louis. 

Pictured left to right: Team Saint Louis vice president James Lewis gears up for a serve. Team Saint Louis president Tyson Cameron and Lewis chat at the net before the next match.

Why Belonging Matters

Matt Berry began playing indoor volleyball with Team Saint Louis last year after years of playing outdoors. It’s just fun, he says, and he likes making new friends and staying fit. 

Berry has a background in recreation and leisure and works with school counselors, so he knows the importance of wanting to belong, to feel like part of a team.  

He sees sports as particularly important for students who want to feel a sense of belonging.

“It’s an opportunity for people who may not know how to connect with a community,” he says. “And that’s what sport does all around.” 

Holland, the player who moved to St. Louis from North Carolina, is 53 and one of the older players in the league. 

“My mom keeps asking when I’m gonna stop, and I say, when my body screams,” he says.  

Before he moved, he was married to a woman and was a minister in the United Methodist Church. Within a short period of time, he came out, he got divorced, and left the church.

He had never played volleyball before, and found Team Saint Louis through an internet search. 

“This was my way to start meeting people,” he says. “I started exploring, I restarted my life, I asked questions, and there were people there to answer those questions who had been out for a while.”  

Team Saint Louis members enjoy a pickleball match on the rooftop court at The Victor apartment building in Downtown St. Louis.

Team Saint Louis opened up other social avenues, and he met people who got him to volunteer with Stray Rescue of St. Louis and the Team Saint Louis booth at Pride St. Louis Grand Pride Parade in Downtown St. Louis.

“So that’s why the community was so important to me,” he says. “It was such a big change in my life. To find people who maybe didn’t understand all the circumstances, but understood coming out, understood making those transitions in life, was just phenomenal.”

Alex Willie started playing pickleball with Team Saint Louis after meeting Cameron at a bar, where Cameron invited him to play. Willie enjoys meeting new people and the emphasis on fitness. It’s also important to feel included, he says.

“This is for everyone,” Willie says as he sits courtside at Willmore Park, where his pickleball friends laugh and joke and thwap balls across the net. “We want everyone here. We want everyone to just connect and make friends.”

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