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One of NCAA's first out gay swimmers reflects on the evolving closet of sports

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Jonathan Goler swam at MIT a decade ago. He was accepted by his team then and encourages LGBT athletes not to quit sports for fear of coming out.

There's been a lot of talk over the last few years that sport is the last bastion of homophobia in the West. I can think of a number of other closets that will still be closed, long after being an openly gay athlete is common. You see a lot of theories in the media that athletes can't handle the "locker room" situation, its going to destroy the team cohesion, etc....

All of that is bullshit. Sport is the arena where what you do (your performance) and how you do it (sportsmanship) are what matter most. I was, I suppose, fortunate to be the first openly gay swimmer at MIT at a time when our program was becoming significantly more competitive than it had been. It wasn't a big deal to me or the team. What was a big deal was our success in the pool.

The general public, and even some athletes, are selling themselves short when it comes to athletes who happen to also be gay. I read a story from a young hockey player who was terrified of coming out, left the sport only to return because his passion was hockey. More recently, Matt Korman, a swimmer at one of the top D1 programs, came out to his team (to a resounding positive reception). Matt's email revealed that he was on the verge of quitting swimming. Coming out to his team was even harder than a set of 10x200's fly, but doing it is irreversible. I hope that he wasn't too surprised by the supportive response.

I was lucky that my team and coaches were supportive of me back at MIT. I was swimming since I was 10 through high school, though I wasn't particularly great. I managed to make the MIT team (barely), and I worked my ass off, won the most improved swimmer twice (I had a long road I guess), and was elected captain my senior year, one of my proudest moments.

But by the end of MIT, as much as I loved swimming, I was definitely burnt out. After a couple of years only swimming occasionally, a water-polo-playing friend of mine encouraged me to join a sort of underground swim club at Berkeley, Team FUEGO. Swimming with them was probably my favorite part of grad school. When I moved out to Toronto with my boyfriend, I immediately joined a club here, and while I often swim with the LGBT club here to get more yards in, I race for my main club. About 80% of my friends are swimmers and most of them are straight. It makes me sad to think about those LGBT athletes who choose to quit the sport they love. I couldn't imagine quitting mine.

College is a challenging and stressful enough experience academically, even more so for closeted LGBT athletes. Was everything perfect? nope. Was everyone gung-ho? probably not. Reflecting on it, in my final year I think we probably said and did some things that may have seemed mean-spirited to an outside observer (though everyone involved was ‘in on it', and it was all in good fun, at least for us). One of my best friends on the team was a member of a fraternity on campus that had a rep as a pretty homophobic place. When my date for the senior ball went AWOL a few days before the event, he found me a date.

One of the most striking elements of the Ian Thorpe coming out story is the degree to which he internalized and personalized hostile remarks. For many athletes a lot of what is interpreted as highly homophobic banter is simple trash talk. For someone closeted, there are so many deeply personalized implications of that kind of talk, while for those dishing it out, its just part of the competitive environment, unless they are sensitive to the harm it causes in general (or understand that someone they are with, could interpret it as a personal attack).

Remaining closeted seems to have shortened Thorpe's swimming career and certainly didn't help his crippling depression. I can only imagine - Had the greatest swimmer in the 2000 Olympics been out, just as I was beginning my college swimming career, what an incredible example he could have set for young athletes struggling with their sexuality.

For those of you who are in the closet, keep swimming!

Jonathan Goler is a former swimmer at MIT. He will be participating at the Gay Games in Cleveland Aug. 9-16.

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