Swimming has been such an integral part of my life. The pool is where I go to maintain balance in my life. It's where I go to clear my head. It's where I go to be alone with my thoughts.

As I've grown older, I've come to be more appreciative of what swimming has provided me throughout my life. As a young high school swimmer, I never would have guessed that swimming would one day be my key to experiencing an entire week of being my true, authentic self. Last week swimming gave me that opportunity – the chance to experience the 2014 Gay Games in Cleveland, Ohio.

I currently swim with a US Masters team in Indiana, but I decided to compete in Cleveland with a group of gay Colorado swimmers with whom I bonded last summer. Over the course of five days I medaled in all five of my individual events (four silver and one bronze) and almost swam faster than a couple of my best times from my high school swimming days. I participated in three relays, and we medaled in two of them. We even set a Colorado Masters Swimming State record on our way to a gold medal in the 400 medley relay! I was very happy with my performance in the pool, but the social aspect of the Gay Games made my experience mean so much more.

I only started coming out a little over two years ago, just as I was beginning graduate school at Purdue University. Up until last week my experiences with gay life had been pretty much limited to attending a couple Pride festivals and a few LGBT events on campus. Being a single gay male in a small college town in Indiana is much different from living in a gay mecca like New York City, Los Angeles, or DC. Because my social life in small-town USA is so much different from what it could be in a bigger city, I looked at Gay Games 9 as my opportunity to spend an entire week immersed in "gay life."

Spending a week around thousands of other gay athletes made me feel right at home. I didn't have to think twice about how long my eyes wandered as an attractive guy walked by on the pool deck. Also, the competition aspect of the Gay Games made striking up a conversation with a guy much more organic. Whether at a bar or on the pool deck, I was comfortable with simply introducing myself and asking a guy what sport he was competing in or how his swims were going during the week. Sure, that type of conversation can happen at any other Masters swimming meet, but I felt completely different in Cleveland because I knew the majority of the other competitors were just like me.

Reflecting on my week of competing and socializing in Cleveland, I truly believe participating in the Gay Games was one of the best decisions I've ever made. Being in Cleveland gave me the opportunity to grow as a gay man. I met so many interesting people and developed some friendships I think will last. I'm already looking forward to my next International Gay and Lesbian Aquatics (IGLA) meet where I can reconnect with some of the great people I met in Cleveland.

I hope every LGBT athlete can one day experience this same sense of affirmation that I found through the Gay Games. I learned about the Gay Games just last summer while reading Jeff Commings book, "Odd Man Out – An Autobiography: True Stories of a Gay Black Swimmer." Reading about his experiences at the Gay Games and other IGLA meets is what encouraged me to make sure that I was in Cleveland this year. I hope that sharing my story might encourage another LGBT athlete to compete in the next Gay Games or join a gay sports league or team.

It's truly an amazing feeling to compete in a sport that you love while being surrounded by a family of people just like yourself!