Going pro with a cause

Gay triathlete on a mission: going pro while erasing hate

(This story was published in 2007).

By: Matt Hennie

For his 31st birthday in September, Brandon Del Campo did what most anyone would do: gather with friends and celebrate. But first, he had a few items to take care of – a 112-mile bike ride in the hills around Boulder, Colo., riding to an elevation of 9,000 feet, an hour run that would stretch about eight miles and an afternoon swim.

That’s a pretty typical day in the life of Del Campo, who two years ago resurrected his athletic career by taking on the most challenging of non-team sports: triathlons, including the Ironman that includes a 2.4-mile swim in open waters, a 112-mile bike ride and a marathon (26.2-mile run). All in a little more than nine hours for the former track and cross country runner from UCLA who’s suffered through anxiety attacks, a shattered hand, plantar fasciitis and two cracked ribs in training for his new sport.

Now, Del Campo wants to transition from amateur to professional status and become one of the few – if not the only – openly gay triathletes on the pro circuit. It’s a striking change for an athlete whose promising running career in college was nearly derailed over his internal struggles with sexual orientation.

“You have all of these thoughts that go through your head – what if you come across a bigot,” Del Campo says. “But I haven’t come across that. It just frees you up. I’ve found that the response from teammates has been overwhelmingly wonderful.”

A hip injury in college that led to surgery impacted Del Campo’s path to becoming a triathlete, at least the second time his athletic career suffered from a major injury. After his days at UCLA ended, Del Campo longed for a return to his running form, though concern over the effects of the hip injury left him wondering if he could sustain the physical demands. So he added swimming and spin classes to his workouts, and in 2005 a friend registered Del Campo for a triathlon in Los Angeles.

“The running felt good, but I hadn’t swum in the ocean or biked before,” he says. “But it wasn’t so bad and I thought I wanted to see how good I could get at this. If I’m ever going to be a professional athlete, it’s going to be in the Ironman.”

After his first triathlon in Los Angeles, Del Campo’s athletic drive took over. In January 2006, just a year into his new calling, Del Campo talked his way into the Epic Camp, an intense training program in New Zealand for elite triathletes. Acceptance into Epic meant giving up his comfortable life as a massage therapist in Los Angeles, leaving his friends and living in New Zealand for months of training.

“I went down to that camp so naïve, and I guess green,” Del Campo says. “Once I got to New Zealand, I decided I should stay there for four months and just train. I was living with some of the best triathletes out there and it just kept getting better and better.”

But the trip to New Zealand also brought a return of his internal struggles with being gay. Though openly gay for several years, Del Campo says fears of being openly gay in the professional levels of the sport left him second-guessing just how out he wanted to be while training in New Zealand.

“When I moved to New Zealand, I realized I was kind of back in the closet,” Del Campo says. “I never wanted it to be my sole identity. I wasn’t sure how to tell people but not make it a big deal. I made a rule with myself that I wasn’t going to hide it, but I wasn’t going to tell if no one asked.”

But over time, as his teammates and mentors learned more about Del Campo, his sexual orientation wasn’t an issue for most, he says. Del Campo is now out to his teammates and spends most of his day around straight people and teammates.

“Some teammates were initially [not okay with] it, but knowing me and being comfortable with me has helped,” he says. “I find it is the most uncomfortable when someone doesn’t know me and that everyone assumes you are straight. They don’t know and they make a comment about something. I don’t take it personally. The problem comes when they find out I am gay and then they will be uncomfortable. Just hang out with me and learn more. They will realize it should be a non-issue.”

Del Campo wants to make the transition to pro through his results at Ironman New Zealand next March. His performance there could qualify him to compete as a professional in the Ford Ironman World Championship in October 2008. In going pro, Del Campo should encounter a sport that is accepting of gay athletes, according to John Duke, CEO and publisher of Triathlete Magazine, a California-based publication that was among the sponsors of Gay Games VII in Chicago last year.

“My sense is that the triathlon world is accepting of gays,” Duke says. “Not that there is any great segment of gays in the triathlon world, but it is a good place for gay people. I know a couple of gay triathletes who are pretty damn good. It is not a handicap in the sport.”

Del Campo also argues that being openly gay on the professional triathlon circuit helps him corner a niche that will boost fundraising and sponsorships, key items in sustaining his life new life in Boulder, Colo., where he moved last year to join top-level triathletes in training.

“I get asked all of the time about what wetsuit should I get, what product should I drink when I am training. For me, that is where the sponsorships come in,” he says. “If a company has a problem with [my sexual orientation], I don’t want the company as a sponsor and I don’t need them. I want companies that see my vision and that will help change the overall feeling of society when it comes to those issues. I think there are plenty of companies that will support that.”

Being gay is also key to Del Campo’s efforts in building a team of triathletes to support his transition to pro. His altruistic side wants to make a statement about social justice while supporting other gay athletes. To that end, Del Campo is building his team in conjunction with the Matthew Shepard Foundation, an organization founded by the parents of the slain gay college student to support diversity programs in education and help youth groups build safe environments. Del Campo’s team name – E-Race Hate – is a play on the foundation’s goal of erasing hate and ignorance. Del Campo hopes to raise more than $50,000 for the foundation in the first year of the E-Race Hate Team. Athletes will soon be able to sign up on Del Campo’s web site, pick one of three events in 2008 to take part, pledge to raise at least $1,000 and begin their training. Del Campo will offer fundraising help as well as training programs and coaching assistance along the way. Participants can connect with others taking part across the country through his Web site, where they will also find updates on the training groups.

Del Campo says teams are already forming in Denver and Los Angeles, an effort he wants to expand to other cities. Participants aren’t limited to triathletes, he says, and can include runners who take part in marathons and half-marathons. He wants participants to form training groups in cities to encourage one another “and to have someone you are accountable to.”

“I am trying to make a statement with the E-Race Hate Team. Not an obnoxious statement, but so many people are making a statement against [being gay]. I wish it wasn’t even an issue. I wish we didn’t have to do an E-Race Hate Team,” Del Campo says.

Gregory Lewis, managing director of the Matthew Shepard Foundation, says Del Campo’s efforts will provide outreach and education in communities about hate through the local training groups, while also helping to raise funds to support the foundation’s efforts to teach young people to treat others with dignity, respect and acceptance.

“Brandon will serve as a role model for what a strong LGBT person can be when they set their mind to it and realize they are just like everyone else,” Lewis says. “After getting to know Brandon and realizing his passion about this issue and our work, it seemed like a natural fit to our existing work.”

Launching the E-Race Hate Team coincides with the Ford Ironman World Championship in Hawaii. The Oct. 13 event, which takes place a day after the ninth anniversary of Shepard’s death, marks Del Campo’s first world championship. The triathlete is dedicating the race to the slain student.

“I was internally tormented in my own head in high school. I was the one having big problems with it, and in college the same thing happened. If I can find a way to be a role model to help people get through it better, that is wonderful for me. When I was in high school, I didn’t know there were gay people,” Del Campo says.

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