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Michigan associate rowing coach Charley Sullivan: 'I’m here, I’m queer and I’m a hell of a good coach'

Two decades of openly queer college coaching, or, how my both being out of the closet and unapologetically gay has helped make my teams winners.

By Charley Sullivan
Associate Head Coach, Men’s Rowing
University of Michigan

This is not a coaching coming out story; it’s a coaching while already being out story, which is, perhaps, a different animal altogether.

I’m a gay college coach who’s been out my whole going-on-20-year career. When Dan Woog wrote about me in his groundbreaking book Jocks in 1997, I’d already been coaching at the University of Michigan for seven years. In the time I’ve been at Michigan, (with a three-year stop at Eastern Michigan University as their first head coach of women’s rowing, and several years teaching high school), Head Coach Gregg Hartsuff and I have built the Michigan men’s rowing team into one of the top programs in the country.

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Charley Sullivan, right, with some of his rowers after winning the gold medal in the Varsity Eight at the 2011 Dad Vail regatta. (Photo by Ted Matherly)

Together, we have produced two Olympians, a number of world champions and other members of the U.S. and Mexican national teams, and nearly 20 years of championship titles, winning records and racing success that make many of our fellow coaches envious. (This year, for instance, our varsity eight went 74-4, winning both the ECAC National Invitational and Dad Vail titles, and our team won its fourth consecutive ACRA National Championship.) But, most importantly, we’ve built a team where the young men (and several young women coxswains) who have rowed for us are able to be themselves, and to bring all of that to simply being fast. My being both gay and out has been an integral aspect of this success.

While I know it’s fashionable, and even somewhat expected, to say “I’m just a such-and-such who happens to be gay,” I on the other hand see myself as a gay coach – an openly, unapologetically, even obnoxiously queer coach. There’s no “I happen to be and let me understate the gay part” here. Rather, being openly gay – with all that has taught me about myself and how I want to be in the world, how I have chosen to live what I hope is an authentic life, and how this is such a source of joy to me – has, in my opinion, been one of the major strengths I have brought to my coaching. I hope to bring a message to gay coaches that not only can being out be a key component of our coaching success, but also that there are insights and experiences we can bring to athletics from our experiences as gay people that can make us better coaches if we will let them into our work.

Coaching at the college level is a highly intimate process. By the time a four-year rower graduates from our program, Gregg and I will have spent over two hours a day with him, five to six days a week. We will know his body inside and out, have scrutinized his use of it over and over, and will have taught him more about his own relationship with his body than perhaps anyone before. We will know what makes him tick, and what shuts him down. Most importantly, given the demands of our training plan, in which we ask our rowers to extend themselves and take near-daily risks of failure, we will have seen him emotionally naked and stripped of all pretense. We will have seen and helped create some of both his proudest and most difficult moments, all examined directly, up close, and without mediation. And all of this will have happened while he is changing, growing and developing from high schooler to adult, with us casting a watchful eye at every step.

The limits of the closet

To be granted that type of access to young peoples’ lives is a great and humbling privilege, and it is a responsibility most coaches I know assume with great care. The coaches who are most successful share a common trait of creating relationships with their athletes that are genuine and real, and that in that sense, are intimate. I cannot imagine having experienced this type of connection with the young men and women I’ve worked with had I been in the closet. That self-enforced distance would have compounded the already asymmetrical power of coach-athlete relationship, a distinct move away from the intimate. Being out, on the other hand, has allowed me to develop particularly strong connections with many of my athletes. In short, largely because I trust them with who I am, they trust me, and they respect that I am being up front and honest – “real” if you will – with them. And being real, figuring out what type of adult to become, is actually the central project of the college years, whether a student is an athlete or not.

I firmly believe that athletes can only perform at their best when they are able to be themselves. Putting on acts – of pretending to be someone you’re not, of always being brave and never afraid, of not being devastated when your grandfather dies – simply takes too much energy. And acts have a reliable way of cracking under pressure. Teams that take the “military” approach to building team unity – the we-will-dress-alike-in-practice and we-will-all-have-the-same-basic-haircut and we-will-all-believe-in-the-same-God approach – are often basing their hopes for success on a set of external appearances that may or may not actually reflect what’s going on inside the team. The ties that a team needs when the going gets tough must be built of “realer” stuff than everyone having the same slogan on a T-shirt. It’s got to be about things like the desire for the group to succeed as a group, about mutual trust built through daily striving, and about a feeling of truly belonging to the team, no matter what.

It’s that last one – the importance of the feeling of belonging – that I learned a lot about from being a gay but closeted high school and college athlete. I remember walking into the varsity locker room my freshman year in high school. It was a lonely space – I would be one of only two freshmen to get a varsity letter in any sport that year – and one where I wondered how I was supposed to behave. How did straight guys act in a locker room, I wondered, and what would happen if someone caught me glancing at the objects of my adolescent sexual desire as they showered? I learned to fake it, and to look the other way, but four varsity letters later, I still never felt like I truly belonged on my own swim team as I graduated and went off to college.

The same thing happened as I became a rower in college, though to a lesser degree. Every opportunity for athletic failure (and in rowing, these come daily,) became magnified in my mind as a chance for my coaches and teammates to realize that I didn’t belong there, that I was an imposter, a fraud crashing the straight male athletic party to which I felt I wouldn’t have been invited if they really knew about me. While I did see quite a deal of success in college, my memories of rowing are much more of implosions than of victories.

Finding a safe gay space

Learning to belong athletically came later, and, instructively to me, far from the hallowed halls of elite college athletics. It happened a year after I graduated from college, in a space where my homosexuality was not only welcome, but celebrated. In the summer of 1987, I went to my first gay water polo practice in Washington DC. It changed my athletic and coaching life.

The practice had been good, with some decently skilled players and a lot of scrimmaging. Some of the guys on the team had played polo in college, others were just learning the sport as they enjoyed the friendship of being on a team of (mostly) gay men. Perhaps because I was a strong player, perhaps because I was 23 and athletic, guys were glad to have me there, and they made me feel immediately welcome. And after practice, as I looked across the locker room and saw a new teammate stripping out of his Speedo, I suddenly realized that not only could I look at him naked if I wished, but that it was quite OK with him if I did, even if only as an appreciative glance. In that moment, a space where I had never felt truly at home before became mine; I instantly knew the incredible strength of that sense of belonging to a team, after just one practice. As a group, we went on to medal at the 1990 Gay Games in Vancouver, to this day, my proudest personal athletic accomplishment, along with a bronze medal in the Pink Flamingo drag relay, the most competitive swimming event at the Gay Games in New York four years later.

Gay swimming and polo has done me well; it’s made me some of my best friends in this world, and it even found me the man I lived with for 10 years, and to whom I was married for nearly eight. Many of my swimming friends joined my rowers at our Quaker ceremony, many years before gay marriage became chic. Most importantly, being involved with gay masters athletics allowed me to integrate my identities as both a gay man and an athlete and coach. As AIDS ravaged my community during those years, it also made helped me realized the critical strength of community. You never belong more fully than when you are brought in to hold friends as they die and to grieve as their world crumbles and yours reforms.

Most importantly, my time with my gay brothers and sisters, my time of great and intimate belonging, taught me the critical importance of creating an authentic space in which athletes can train and strive, where they can be themselves, and where it is safe to fail while striving to succeed brilliantly without worrying if you will be judged simply for who you are. When you truly belong, you are free to take risks without fear of rejection, and taking great risks is critical to making great strides.

So that’s what I try to model every day. By being myself – all of myself, which includes being the guy who likes to tell inappropriate jokes and to be outrageously queer in practice at times – I can also be the coach that guys come to when things are hard, when injuries and lack of progress are breeding frustration, when their girlfriends dump them, when they’re simply worrying about what comes next in their lives. And if the team is a place that I can belong just as I am, it becomes a place, I hope, where they all can belong just as they are, or just as they are becoming. That becomes our strength, when 1,200 meters into the 2,000 meter race, the body and mind throw up every resistance to being asked to go harder yet, and the athlete can answer, but that’s who I am, that’s what I do, and we are one; now let’s just go be faster.

Be yourself

To many people, I suppose my coaching style appears eccentric, even reckless. The world of intercollegiate athletics is an elite space not exactly chock-a-block with people preaching ideas of full inclusion and radical diversity. This is particularly true as collegiate athletics has become increasingly “corporatized” over the past two decades or so. Coaches and teams – even rowing teams now, thanks to the growth of the women’s side of our sport – are under tighter and more consistent scrutiny than ever before. Optics have a way of becoming and enforcing reality, and it seems to me that coaches are increasingly wary of appearing to take the risks of being their own persons. There are very few Bo Schembechlers and Woody Hayeses out there anymore, who boldly speak their minds.

Every image some coaches put forward, from their public pronouncements to their way of dressing to the right hair-cuts on their adorable children and ever-faithful wives, is carefully placed within increasingly narrow parameters of what passes as the acceptable vision of a college coach. Get emotional and break down and be real during a press conference, and, as former Michigan football coach Rich Rodriguez found out last year, you’re instant fodder for press across the nation. Try being openly and proudly gay as a football or men’s basketball coach, and saying in a press conference that this was part of why you just beat your in-state rival? The ESPN pundit sphere and endless internet sports chat boards would run crazy with incomprehension.

Let’s be clear. For some very real reasons, being an openly gay coach can seem, from the closet in particular, to be an incredibly huge, an even unbearably huge, failure risk. Coaches work “at the pleasure of the athletic director.” They can be let go at any moment, for nearly any reason. A departure settlement in such cases, no matter how generous, can still be devastating to one’s own sense of self-worth and employability. (Been there, done that, not fun, and I don’t recommend it.)

But it is also clearly increasingly possible for coaches to be out, as many of the lesbians who have bravely paved the way on this issue while simultaneously building the credibility of women’s athletics have shown for years, and as a group of exciting new young and out coaches on the college scene are proving again.

I believe however, that we are at point now that the real movement in creating the spaces in which gay coaches can do their best work – and I unapologetically claim that that means being out and open, no exceptions – must be more systemic. It must be led, or at least fully and openly supported, by athletic directors and senior administrators, and it is in their best interests to do so. From a strictly “corporate” stand point, why invest so much money in someone and then truss up one of his limbs to limit his strengths in coaching? From a human standpoint, why focus so much on everything looking right instead of on making sure everything actually is alright on the inside?

We must work to move AD’s away from being comfortable with a “don’t ask, don’t tell” mentality, particularly when it gets to the point of out-and-out delusion. A very senior nationally prominent athletic director once told me point blank in a job interview that she had no lesbian coaches on her staff, when she had nothing but lesbian coaches on her staff. To admit that, however, would not have jibed with the official line she had set down. She may have thought she was helping her coaches, and protecting her department, but I believe her approach had the opposite effect in both instances. The movement on this issue must be one of true leadership from the senior administrators of athletic departments and universities, who need to make unequivocally clear that gay coaches will not only be hired, but welcomed and supported in their departments, and, ideally, valued for the experiences they bring with them that may be different from the norm.

For my part, I’m quite certain that being openly gay has cost me job opportunities. But honoring my sense of belonging, the memories of friends long ago taken from me, and my own (admittedly quite strong) sense of self-respect, I have come to see those personal disappointments as failures on the schools’ parts. And, since I’ve gone on to out-coach all of them in any case, it has quite literally been their loss. But I’m also clear that there are many schools where I could be an openly gay coach without any problems. In the end, I do believe that we will be treated as we tell people we expect to be treated, and in that sphere, I choose to respect myself and to expect respect from others.

In any case, I’m happy with the choices I’ve made, and I’m fortunate to find myself in a superbly supportive situation, which offers the daily opportunity to go out on the river and work closely with an incredible team of young men and women striving to be their best selves.

The payoff for this work comes in so many ways. As I write this, one of my former athletes is preparing for his second Rowing World Championships, that all of us will follow live online. Another is getting married in California wine country, surrounded by rowers who will more than likely drunk dial both Gregg and me as they dance on the floor, yelling our names into the phone. When I was in San Francisco recently on a recruiting trip, my former rowers out there all wanted a meal or some coffee or a beer together, to catch me up on their lives, and to catch up on mine. (“Have you found a boyfriend?” was the consistent question. Sadly, but hopefully, “not yet” was the consistent answer.) One of my coxswains, an amazing young woman with three Varsity 8 national championships under her belt, wrote this on Facebook, “Dude, you were so right. Rowing can TOTALLY get you a job. One of the guys I work with now who interviewed me told me today that he went around telling everyone they had to hire me because ‘any tiny little girl that can boss around a D1 college male athlete will do great working for us’. HAHA!”

These are the things that make my heart sing. I know that I would never give up the parts of me that allow these moments to happen. These are the things, beyond the victories and cups and medals, which make coaching so fulfilling for me. To any of my current or former athletes who may read this, thank you again for allowing me the privilege of working with you. You all have my immense and enduring respect, and my greatest appreciation. Remember to make good choices. Remember that Those Who Stay Will Be Champions! Go Blue!

And for me, I’m here, I’m queer and I’m a hell of a good coach for it. To other coaches, come on out and play, the weather can be just fine if you make it so and choose the right places to invest your energies. And you just may find yourself being a better and more fulfilled coach than you’ve ever imagined.

Charley Sullivan is associate head coach of men's rowing at the University of Michigan. He can be reached via email at iglapolo@aol.com.