(This story was published in 2005).
By Matt Coin
The veterans on the team piled into the van I was driving for the final regular season road trip of the year from Santa Barbara to Stockton, Calif., this spring, leaving the rookies to drive with the head coach. We followed our coach closely and rode along in silence because it was early in the morning. When the van began to shake violently, everyone woke up and became alert.
Smoke enveloped the van as it began to sway, but I managed to regain control and pull over to a halting stop just short of a cliff. The entire team leapt out unscathed and moved away from the van, only to see that the right front tire had exploded and flown off of the wheel.
I called my coach; he pulled over a mile down the road, and walked back to meet us while we called for help. The university brought us a new van and we continued our drive up the coast. At first, my teammates and I were silent; more silent than before, but this time everyone was awake. After a brief lunch break, we piled back into the van and my teammates began to discuss the near disaster that we faced.
One by one, my teammates went around sharing stories that they never had told before and the bonds began to form stronger than ever. It was my turn. I reflected on what I had been through for the past month and the 180-degree turn my life had taken within days.
Growing up, I always knew that something about me was a little different, but I was never able to put my finger on it. Throughout high school, I was still unsure of what it was, but it was more out of insecurity and immaturity. I graduated high school and left New Jersey for Lafayette College in Pennsylvania to play tennis. I began to come to grips with the realization that I was attracted to men, but I believed that it was just a phase. After taking numerous psychology courses in my freshman year, I began to think that I could condition myself to like girls by dating them. By my sophomore year, it was all I could think about: I was gay and there was no way that I could change.
I did not know any gay men personally, but I did know that I was nothing like any of the gay men portrayed on television. No one had ever asked me if I was gay before because everyone just assumed that I was straight. I dated girls, played sports, and had male friends. However, I knew that I had to get a fresh start, so I transferred to UC-Santa Barbara to continue my tennis career. My two-year career at UCSB was humbled by surgery on my left and right wrists, in addition to countless other injuries, including torn tendons and muscles. The surgery on my right wrist ended my senior year six matches into the season.
It is often said that things happen for a reason, but until February, I never believed that. Everyone always told me that I was the luckiest person alive: I won $4,000 on the "Weakest Link" and a new car on the "Price is Right," but the internal struggle that I battled with my sexuality and the countless injuries made me feel unlucky.
Tennis was the only outlet that I had where I could focus on something other than my sexuality, but now I was forced to come face to face with it; I did not know what to think or do. I had just recovered from the surgery on my left wrist and days later I received the news that I had to get surgery on my right wrist. I could not hold my sexuality in any longer and I revealed my secret to two close female friends of mine and their roommate, who was gay. I knew that I could trust them and each offered their support, which was something that I needed at the time.
'Certain I Was Gay'
As the captain of the team, I continued to go on road trips and be an active member of the team, but it became difficult to lead a life where some of my friends knew and others did not. Things progressed between my friends’ roommate Josh and I, and all of the doubts that I had faced for years disappeared. I was certain that I was gay and that it was something I could live with.
I thought that I would just tell my three friends and then maybe one of my sisters, but within days, I told each of my close friends and all of my five siblings, but neither of my parents. I was becoming so comfortable with everything so quickly.
I told my mom that I needed her to come visit for my surgery, but really I wanted to reveal to her that I was gay. My mom is one of the most important people in my life and I have never lied to her about anything else. I needed her to know. I was afraid that if I waited to tell her until after my surgery, I would allow the medication to affect me too much. A few hours after she arrived, I said to her, "Mom, I am gay." It was the first time that I had uttered that sentence. Prior to telling my mom, I had always said, "I am coming out." While this may not seem like a monumental statement, it was for me.
Josh invited my mom and me over for dinner so I had to explain to my mom that Josh was more than a friend and that we were dating. She took everything very well considering the fact that she learned of my secret and met my boyfriend within minutes of one another. I let her know that it was OK if she needed time to herself, but she exclaimed, "I want to see him!" Upon meeting Josh, my mom said, "How is your boyfriend better looking than all of your sisters’ "? I was excited that she was comfortable with the situation and it was a big relief.
The support that I received from my friends and family was overwhelming to the point that I was sorry that I had waited so long, but everyone has their time and it is important to be ready to come out so that you do not doubt yourself.
Each person I told was shocked, confused, and in utter disbelief, but my constant reassurance that I was telling the truth calmed them, and in turn, calmed me. I had never answered more questions about myself before, but I enjoyed every minute because it was freeing to finally be myself and express my true feelings.
I enjoyed educating people about all of the false stereotypes; the process made me learn a lot about my friends and family. I realized how truly special were the people I surrounded myself with. I was able to think analytically about homosexuality for the first time because I was able to accept myself as a gay man. However, I had not yet accepted myself as a gay athlete.
Telling my teammates, especially the veterans with whom I had already been through one season, was the scariest thing I have ever done. I missed playing tennis so much because of my injuries, but traveling helped me remain a part of the team. Would my teammates want me to leave the team? Would they be afraid to room with me on trips? I did not know what to expect, but I had to tell them, especially after what we had been through. My college career almost came to a close without some of the most important people in my life ever knowing such an important aspect of me.
Taking the Plunge
I had played in matches when the team’s fate came down to my court, and I knew that this situation was similar: I had to be confident and focus on winning instead of being afraid to lose, because on any team everyone has fallen down and needed to be picked back up.
All of those thoughts ran through my mind in the van as my teammates awaited my story. The thought of almost going over that cliff made me realize how fragile life was and how important it was to be myself. My team’s attention focused on me and I tried to get to the point quickly so that they would believe me. I told them that I was dating someone and that it was a guy. Again, the shock and disbelief were rampant, but within minutes, I gained their trust and acceptance.
Not one of my teammates had an adverse reaction and when I told them who I was dating, a junior named Josh who had come to several of the matches, one of my teammates said, "Oh, the hot Abercrombie-looking guy?" I was flattered and replied, "That’s the one."
I answered questions for the remainder of the trip and even throughout the weekend. I told my remaining teammates that same weekend and their reactions were similar to the others, but more importantly, so were their responses. I had not told my coach, Marty Davis, yet.
The season came to a close in disappointing fashion, as we lost in our conference tournament. The team was driving home together when he began to discuss the year-end banquet. Davis suggested that this year’s banquet was going to be slightly more formal than in the past and he encouraged everyone to bring a date. I grew nervous as my teammates’ eyes once again focused on me. I asked him who we should bring and he said, "Well, only bring a date if you have a girlfriend or something like that." I replied, "I’ve got something like that," and after laughs from my team, the conversation ended.
The banquet is combined with the women’s tennis team and I thought about how the coaches, trainers, and alumni might react to my bringing Josh to the banquet. I decided to tell my coach so that everyone’s attention could be focused on the banquet and not on Josh and me. He was glad that I told him and his support was overwhelming. He, unlike everyone else, treated the issue as if it was normal. He had not suspected, and maybe it was his shock, but he offered his support and told me to bring Josh.
I begged all of my teammates to bring dates so that Josh would not stick out and each promised me that they would. However, no one on either the men’s or women’s team brought a date … except for me! My coach did a great job of spreading the word to the other guests ahead of time and no one’s jaw dropped.
The banquet went off without a hitch until the end: senior speeches. Most seniors fail to prepare and are put on the spot to give a speech. I came fully prepared and probably put more effort into my speech than I had into any paper in my four years of college. Of the approximately 35 people in attendance, there was not one dry eye by the end. I offered parodies of my teammates and coaching staff, but then spoke to them about the support that my teammates and coach had given to me over the past few months. I never directly said what their support was for, but the implication touched my team in a way that I never had before. I thanked them for understanding how difficult it was for me to watch from the sidelines, for keeping me as the captain, and most importantly for always trying to make me feel a part of the team.
It has been a very short amount of time that I have been open about my sexuality, but it feels as if a tremendous amount of weight has been lifted off of my shoulders. I am recently a college graduate and look forward to beginning a new chapter in my life in which I can be myself. I feel lucky and I know that not everyone will have as positive of an experience as I have had, but I can only tell my story, and hope that it offers someone a sense of security to know that there are openly gay athletes out there.
Matt Coin, 22, graduated in June from UC-Santa Barbara with a degree in Sociology. He will spend the next two months coaching tennis in Europe before pursuing his career goals San Francisco.