I woke up this morning, and the first thought I had was about the people I met at Camp Pride. For five days I stayed at UNC-Charlotte, bonding with LGBTQ students and allies from college campuses around the country. The camp is a leadership academy that helps college students develop their social justice and leadership skills. I was lucky to go this year and accept Campus Pride's Voice and Action National Athlete Award.
I had so many revelations at camp last week. The first of which was drinking coffee for the first time. That was an eye opener. I mean that stuff did something to me. Between that, smiling too much, and not sleeping enough, my face was twitching some type of way.
But the experience ran so much deeper than that. The people I met gave me the strength to reflect on parts my life that I have avoided for a long time. I learned so many things from what we shared.
One of those things was to love people even if they make mistakes. Not everything was rainbows and sunshine in Charlotte. Things were said and done that annoyed me and that I didn't agree with. But I understood that everything was for a good purpose. Intentions are important. We have to teach each other and we have to learn. If we don't mess up sometimes and we don't piss anyone off, we probably aren't going anywhere.
While surrounded by these people that I love, I got to know myself on a much deeper level. I thought about the way I've come to be who I am. My goals and my life dreams were all born in the water. I used my swimming as an excuse to not deal with myself and my feelings outside of it.
It took me a very long time to accept that I am a lesbian. It took me even longer to accept that I don't fit the normative definition of a female. When I finally did those things, I started to resent swimming.
I was angry at swimming for keeping me in a box. I was sad that it kept me from making connections with people that I could relate to. I was invisible to myself as anything other than an athlete. It was the only identity I knew how to express.
Five months ago that ended. I finished my NCAA career and all of a sudden my life was barely recognizable. I tossed my cap and goggles, knowing that I had to walk away from something that I loved because I had been fighting with it for too long.
At camp, I had to consider who I am from so many angles. It was the first time I had put myself out there as a whole person first. I thought about the other things that gave my life meaning and how my identities are connected. I learned that I'm indefinite. I can never and will never be just one thing.
I was up until 3 in the morning most days, feeling things I had never allowed myself to process. I was up late one of the nights with Matt, talking about something I had on my mind. It was something simple. But he made me realize that I have to trust myself to feel my feelings and I have to be honest about that.
I left Charlotte knowing myself in a way that I never have before. Because of that, I'm not afraid of what I want anymore. And as I told my friend Erick when I opened up a bottle of Pepsi right before bed at 1 a.m., I do what I want.
I want to change lives. I want to hold somebody's hand and do the things that no one ever did for me. I want to be the things that were missing in my life, some of the things that everyone should have.
I want to stand up for those who have to fear the things that I am privileged not to face. I want to be brave enough to do my best and sometimes make mistakes that lead me to be a better person.
I want to fight for what I love, whom I love, and every person's right to live with those things. Because even when that has hurt me, it's made me better for the endgame.
I want to U-Haul off into the sunset with the woman that I love, despite the number of people who will look at and treat me differently because of it.
I'm want to follow my heart everywhere, because that's where I'm supposed to be. I want my life on my own terms. I want it now.
What I also want at this moment is still to swim. Not to be just a swimmer, but to be a person who swims. And that is what I am going to do.
Coming to terms with all of this was very emotional for me. I cried when I left, something I'm usually careful not to do in front of others. It was just so hard to think of what I was leaving. It was an inconvenience to say goodbye to you all and fly back into the real world. But when I was sitting on that plane, I realized something.
You are my real world. You just made it bigger. You left a mark on my life that I will carry with me every day, wherever I go. It was your love and friendship that helped me shine light through the holes in my heart. And now I'm gonna go on living my life like some kind of beautiful freaking candle holder.
Lauren Neidigh is Director of Social Media for GO! Athletes. She was a Division I swimmer at the University of Arizona and is starting her masters this fall in criminology at Florida State University. She can be reached on Twitter @l_e_neidigh; facebook.com/lauren.neidigh; email (firstname.lastname@example.org)or Instagram (/lneidigh).