It's a shame that, in the 21st century, coming out of the closet is still a big deal for a celebrity. It's an especially big deal for a pro athlete. But when you have a president who wants to go out of his way to amend the freaking Constitution in order to ban gay marriage, you know you're dealing with a sensitive issue. Enter Sheryl Swoopes, Olympic medal-winning, NCAA record-setting, all-around ass-kickin' Comet. She came out last October, saying she was tired of hiding her relationship with partner Alisa Scott. Something like that shouldn't be a bombshell anymore, but it is, especially in her home state. Imagine an NBA star coming out. Or a major-leaguer. What about the NFL? "Well," you say, "none of those guys are gay." Right. In the meantime, props to Sheryl for showing guts and glory off the court as well as on.
YMCA
The most frequent accolade expressed by YMCA habitus is a deep appreciation for the unending supply of fresh towels, and we agree -- especially since the huge stacks here are often warm. Add state-of-the-art, clean and diverse workout facilities (including an indoor Olympic-size pool), a helpful staff, income-based membership pricing, a fully equipped password-protected women's-only workout area and an in-house Smoothie King, and you'll see why the YMCA Downtown trumps every other gym in the city. Another reason we can't get enough of this gym is the regular-people factor: Families, social groups and friends gather here after work and school to play basketball, squash, volleyball and racquetball, and a packed schedule of classes from yoga and kickboxing to water aerobics and spinning ensures a place for members of all fitness levels and ages. Giant locker room facilities contain day and overnight lockers, hot showers, steam rooms, whirlpools, dry saunas and restrooms, as well as oversize vanities with hair dryers.
A refugee from corporate America, Kay Westcott has been teaching yoga full-time since 1995. She leads 20 classes a week at different venues around town, including the Jewish Community Center, the West U Bally's and Your Body Center. What makes her classes so enjoyable is her positive attitude and playful approach: She likes to get feedback from her students, but that's not always easy when they're working hard. ("Y'all have stopped talking to me. Are you mad at me?") For years she's taught an advanced class at the Downtown YMCA, where students explore the outer limits of their practice with challenging asanas. And she revels in what she calls the "sweaty, grunty phase" of a new pose, encouraging her yogis and yoginis to express themselves with moans and groans. Whether you're just beginning or ready to hit some new yogic highs, Kay will lead you on the path to awareness, serenity and growth.
At high water or low, there's no place better for a human-powered boat to put in than Armand Bayou Nature Center. Early risers can watch deer, reptiles and waterfowl as they start their day in the wetlands. At any time, though, attentive visitors can enjoy abundant native wildlife in the water and along the muddy beaches of this briny estuary. Motorboats are banned here, so the safe cove with its slow-moving water makes the spot ideal for beginners and a great place for old hands to relax. Those with the endurance to make a day of it can paddle all the way to Clear Lake Park, where they can enjoy crabbing or picnicking before heading back. You can't miss the numerous pelicans -- brown and giant white -- that call this preserve home.
With Six Flags theme parks going the way of the World's Fair, it might not be long before SplashTown becomes a parking lot. So pay homage while you can to the Texas Freefall, one of the oldest spots in Houston where you can get a colossal water-slide wedgie. Remember all those relaxing days in the Lazy River dodging kids who were coming down off a sugar high? (And the random warm spots caused by too many sodas?) In its better days, SplashTown was a great place to take the kids for an innocent day in the sun. In its lesser days, it was a gathering place for unaccompanied teenagers wanting to ogle the opposite sex. And in its darker days, it was closed on account of rain.
Terry Hershey Park
In the '60s a handful of forward-thinking people strove to save the bayous from being paved over for the sake of "progress." Luckily for us, Terry Hershey and her husband were able to make some political strides back then, because today we have more than ten miles of bike trails at the 500-acre park named for Hershey's efforts. The trails are lined with green, giving you a feeling of being far out with nature, but the park features modern conveniences such as -- thank you! -- bathrooms. More trails are being developed every year along Buffalo Bayou, where the park is located, but be prepared to deal with throngs of pedestrians.
To get the full effect of Donovan Park, go in the company of a four-year-old. Watch his eyeballs bulge out of his head and stand back as his little motor revs up for the expansive fantasyland of castles and trains, bridges and climbing structures. The park and playground, built in the late '90s as a community effort, is an old-fashioned kingdom where kids' imaginations can run wild. Be sure to pack a snack, because the tots will want to stay a while!
When you have kids, your recreational choices change. For one thing, you forgo a pool packed with hard bodies for one that's safe for your non-swimming toddlers to splash around in. But despite Houston's heat, it's hard to find a kiddie pool inside the Loop. The Garden Cove Swim Club pool, however, is designed with families in mind: The depth slopes gradually from three to 12 feet, so there's plenty of space for the youngsters to cool off without drowning, and moms and dads can relax in the shaded, grassy areas or take a plunge off the diving board. Unfortunately, this luxury doesn't come free; it's a private pool, and prices start at $225 for the summer session.
If there's one thing that annoys a fan of the U.S. national soccer team, it's when someone criticizes the players after watching just one World Cup match. Thankfully, Houston readers have a columnist who's on the ball: John P. Lopez covered this year's World Cup in a way newcomers could understand and die-hard fans will never forget. The highlight of his coverage came with a column addressing the devastating state of U.S. soccer. In his article, which was critical of the risk-averse coaches, Lopez blamed the team's poor performance on their meager presence at international matches. Argentina took over Olympic basketball after years of embarrassing defeats, and Latin America has conquered baseball, he wrote. Thus it's not years of exposure to a game that makes a great athlete, but rather exposure to true competition that makes a difference. Goal!
Palacios is the shrimp capital of Texas. So what, you say? Well, we'll tell you. Hundreds of crusty old sea dogs deliver big, fat, still-jumping fresh shrimp to Palacios's restaurants every day, and you can sit on the deck of one of the town's many seafood restaurants, eat a delicious $7 fried shrimp dinner with all the fixin's and chitchat with the boat captain who just brought in your dinner. Or you can sit around and argue with the locals about how to pronounce the name of the town. (No matter what anyone says, "Palacios" should not rhyme with "splashes.") This tiny town has plenty of Texas twang, some of the best seafood on the Gulf Coast (certainly the freshest), low, low prices (a three-bedroom condo a block from the beach goes for $180 a night), great fishing and birding (if you're into that sort of thing) and is close enough for a day trip.

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