(This story was published in 2005).
Openly gay collegiate gymnast Graham Ackerman won the national championship in the floor exercise at the 2005 Men’s Collegiate Gymnastics Championships at West Point, N.Y.. Six different gymnasts in all were crowned national champions in the six events: floor exercise, pommel horse, rings, vault, horizontal bar and parallel bars.
While Ackerman was thrilled that his 9.600 edged out the 9.587 posted by Iowa’sMichael McNamara, he rolled his eyes about his performance after the meet.
“I was surprised I won,” Ackerman said, adding that he felt it was a mediocre performance. “Not even close to my best,” he said.
Last year, Ackerman won the national championship with a 9.687; his career best was 9.775 in 2002. Ackerman also finished 10th in the horizontal bar after he lost his grip and had to dismount halfway through his routine and finished with an 8.812.
The back-to-back national champion had one of the loudest cheering sections in the arena, with his parents and teammates cheering on “Ack” as he flipped and tumbled on the floor.
Staging the event at West Point seemed the perfect home. It sits on the outskirts of the sleepy town of Highlands, N.Y., the ultimate small-college town where the event took over the town and surrounding areas for three days. Families and friends, as well as some teams, had to stay up to a half hour away because the nearby Holiday Inn Express could only hold so many. The stands were about two-thirds full, and the local flavor rang through the gymnasium.
West Point had only one competitor in the individual competition on Saturday night –Brian Lee. When Lee took the mat to begin his ring routine, the crowd became electric, cheering louder than after the national anthem – and at West Point, that’s saying something.
“Being on my home court was amazing,” Lee, a senior giving his last collegiate performance, said after the competition. “To finish out in this gym and with this crowd, it really pumped me up.”
Lee’s performance earned him a commanding 9.687, but was nipped for the national championship by the event’s final competitor, Oklahoma’s David Henderson, who posted a 9.700. Henderson competes for Oklahoma with his brother, Jamie.
The great irony, of course, was the awarding of a national championship to Ackerman at West Point. While he would not be allowed to attend the military academy or serve in the army, it was a young cadet, clad in a formal uniform, bringing Ackerman his national championship trophy as the announcer bellowed over the sound system, “NCAA champion Graham Ackerman.”
The NCAA has a sense of humor, it seemed.
Gays in Gymnastics
In part because of their small stature and the perception that gymnastics is a women's sport, many people have the impression that every male gymnast is gay.
A gymnast who has chosen to stay in the closet for now talked with Outsports under anonymity about being gay in gymnastics. He said that while he believes most collegiate gymnasts are straight, there are a number of gay athletes in collegiate gymnasts. However, other than Graham Ackerman, he only had confirmation from one: a teammate of his. That other teammate is the only person on his team whom he has come out to.
Still, he said, rumors fly about members of a number of teams.
It’s not surprising. Simply watching the movements of some of the athletes as they run down the ramp toward the vault, or that they incorporate into their floor exercises, it’s hard to believe any straight man would ever move like that in public, let alone on national television. Of course, by that thinking, every man playing football would be straight – and that is certainly not the case.
And, to be sure, there was plenty of eye candy. The closeted gymnast admitted that there is, at times, a hint of distraction to being gay in a sport where the bodies on the men are often so beautiful.
While many men may watch gymnastics for the eye candy, the overall theme of the meet was camaraderie. Despite being mostly West Point locals, seemingly the entire crowd cheered for every competitor from every team – something that has been lost in the crowds of most team sporting events today.
Though, if anyone discredits gymnastics as a team sport, all they had to do was watch Ackerman throughout the meet. After his floor exercise, he was cheering on his teammates, helping them position some of the apparati, giving them pep talks – a true captain and a true teammate.
Ackerman, a senior at the University of California, doesn’t know whether his gymnastics career will continue after he graduates this spring. He said his focus for the last year has been this competition, and that the moments after the competition were the first ones he was allowing himself to think about what might be next.
“I love gymnastics, and I’d love to continue with it,” he said after the competition. Injuries have taken their toll on him, though, as he categorized gymnastics as a tough sport that puts an incredible amount of strain on the body. Other athletes we spoke to echoed that sentiment and said that, despite their fit appearance, many had already had been through a litany of surgeries and physical therapy just to keep their body able to compete.