By Thomas James
When I realized that National Coming Out Day coincided with the Ironman World Championship this year, I knew I had to share my story. There may be just one guy out there walking in my shoes who can relate, so if you watch the rebroadcast of this year’s race Nov. 15, a story similar to mine could be playing out again among the field.
Mine isn’t the story of an athlete currently in high school or college, or a guy who's playing pro ball or even a famous pro athlete retired from sport. It's about a normal 40-something year old Wall Street guy from small-town Texas who married his college sweetheart right out of college and has four kids. A hands-on dad who later divorced and started triathlons as a way to deal with overall stress and to give working out some structure and purpose. Who somehow made it to the Ironman World Championship.
Little did I know than an April email I received a few years back from someone with an @ironman.com address would be a lifesaver and start not only a life-changing athletic journey, but an entirely different life-changing journey as well…
Aloha Lucky Athlete,
It is a pleasure to send you this special invitation to participate in this year's race. We are all very excited to see your dreams fulfilled by competing in the Ford Ironman World Championship…
I just sat there stunned. I was selected out of thousands of applicants, as one of the 150 domestic Ironman lottery athletes for the 2007 October Ironman in Kona, Hawaii. Yeah, THAT Ironman. The big one through the sweltering lava fields that they show on TV. It was luckier than getting a Willy Wonka golden ticket. A miracle. And it changed my life.
Looking back, for me it was always about control. So when things I was feeling started to reach beyond my control, I was not in a good place. At 40, I was finally figuring out that who I was on the inside wasn’t really who I was living life as on the outside – that completely straight life, complete with four kids, an ex-wife and a Wall Street career that supported the hefty obligations that come along with supporting a couple households in New York City.
I’d done a helluva job managing a great image, but for what? And if I really wasn’t the guy who was living that life, who in the hell was I? Am I just a big fraud? When I started to be candid with myself and dig deep into why, with everything I had, I was still feeling numb on the inside, I felt things start to unravel and spin wildly out of control.
After repeatedly preaching integrity to my kids for years, here I was, in denial, living a lie. A big one. A big, fat, long, complicated one. And it was finally wearing me down. I couldn’t figure out which would be worse though: continuing to move through the world as an empty shell of someone I wasn’t or ultimately telling my friends and my children that I was gay. The seemingly-everything-in control guy had dug himself a deep hole to a dark place, with no apparent way out. "Will deal with it once I finish the Ironman" shed some light and bought me some time.
Athletically, I was facing an epic challenge and something daunting as hell. But if there’s one thing that endurance athletes are great at, it’s controlling everything in their life to face a daunting challenge head on. Like many triathletes do, I relished in the discipline and routine of pushing my body further every day. So much of a long endurance race is building mental toughness and control, so I brought maniacal focus to the six-month task of getting to the start line.
I knew I wasn’t 20-something anymore but I still felt like a competitive athlete inside and I wasn’t going to blow this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. For me, the structure and schedule of preparing for the race took the focus off of a pretty dark time.
Being able to shut out the rest of the world for an hour in the pool at 5 a.m. became therapeutic.
Logging in literally hundreds of miles on the bike brought hours of solitude that let me really think through things and process some tough questions: "What were all my buddies going to think? Were they going to think that all these years I was not the guy they thought I was? Would I lose all my friends and alienate my family? What about my kids? If I’m not what I’d built my reputation around, who am I?"
There were some tears shed all over the hilly roads between NYC, northern New Jersey and Pennsylvania as I answered some of those questions. It felt good to push myself psychologically in addition to just physically – and I finally started to feel healthy on both fronts. Out running mile after mile, one of the questions I finally had the sanity to ask myself was "What’s the worst thing that could happen by telling the truth?"
I didn’t have a good answer. The endless hours of solitude on the bike and the run gave me the perspective I needed to process things. About a month before the race I finally "manned-up" and came out to three of my lifelong-friends that were going to join me in Kona to cheer me on. I began each conversation with what I came to truly believe, "I’m going to be the same guy in five minutes that I was five minutes ago." So began my journey back to the truth. Those first conversations were the toughest but Andrea, my friend since seventh-grade science class, responded with "I’m so excited for you!" and my buddy Hancock was more upset that I hadn’t come to him sooner when I told him it’d been eating me alive. Parker was a little uncomfortable at first, but it took him about two minutes to get over it and then we continued bullshitting about the same stuff we’ve talked about for 20 years. Once I realized that nothing changed and they were still "my posse," things just became much easier. I finally wasn’t alone with this secret anymore.
In terms of bringing it up with the kids, it took a little longer for me to get out of my own way but ultimately the same non-event took place. As a parent, I learned early on that most kids take cues from their parents in terms of how they should react to something, so my approach with them was just very matter of fact, and that’s how they took it. As far as I can see, life hasn’t skipped a beat and I think I’m closer to them now more than ever.
On race day, in addition to my kids, I was joined at the start line in Kona by my three best friends and their spouses. I’d covered a lot of ground, both literally and figuratively. As I waded into the Pacific before the gun went off along with the other 1,835 athletes, I felt like the luckiest man alive. This sport made me realize that it just didn't matter if I was gay or straight and that I'm no different and certainly no less of an athlete. Or less of a father. Or less of a friend. Crossing that finish line in Kona was the challenge of a lifetime but nothing compared to the challenge and terror of "coming out" at 40. But I accomplished both, and don't think I could have done one without the other.
Thomas James went on to do another Ironman race and still works on Wall Street. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org