HOLLAND, Michigan — Nathan Rommel and a half dozen other competitive, college freshmen athletes walk to a cookout their first night at Hope College. The swimming and diving team's cookout lets the veterans meet the new guys.
Hope, a liberal arts Christian college on the eastern banks of Lake Michigan, is located more than 600 miles from home, so he never competed against these guys in high school. This provides his first chance to gauge his new teammates.
"I'm kind of scoping out the kids — pussy, piece of shit, bald," Rommel says of his first impressions about the other freshmen.
Rommel's objective is to be "the cool one."
But as the night progresses, he stops being competitive and the false bravado goes away. He makes a decision that sets him apart from the other freshmen guys.
While talking with a member of the women's swim team, Rommel brings up the boyfriend he left behind in Kansas.
"It just popped right out," Rommel says of the unplanned pronouncement. "It was honestly a big relief just to get over that first one."
In the following weeks, Rommel learned a gay swimmer wasn't new for Hope — there were two gay upperclassmen — but for Rommel, this marked a change. He mostly resisted telling people about his sexuality before college.
Rommel's hesitations about telling people he's gay before college prevented him from developing close friendships most of his life. He felt few personal attachments until he opened up about his sexuality and found acceptance at Hope College.
"The swim team, they took me in," says Rommel, now a senior. "I'd never had that community ... in high school to support me and stand up for me."
In the summer of 1993, Jeff and Diane Rommel received a phone call earlier than they expected.
On July 22, their son had been born in a Chicago-area hospital. Jeff and Diane arranged an adoption weeks before traveling to New Hampshire to visit family. They cut their trip short and drove for two days to pick up Nathan from the hospital.
The main detail Nathan remembers from the story, as he heard it over the last 22 years, "My birth mom never held me. They just popped me out and wheeled me away."
The Rommels lived in the Chicago suburb of Wheaton at the time. They moved four times the next 10 years until Nathan was in fourth grade, which is when they moved to the Kansas City suburb of Overland Park, Kansas.
Nathan was a veteran of athletics by the time his family moved to Overland Park. His mom started him in gymnastics at 2 years old. Around 7, Rommel joined a club swimming team, and at the first practice, he showed natural ability and the coach told Diane to never let him quit.
"I was good at [swimming]. I was leading the lane and winning races," Rommel says. "I loved it right away."
After some initial gymnastics success, Nathan started to struggle around 9 years old, and his sisters' involvement in dancing intrigued him.
"The parts that I liked about gymnastics were the dancing," Rommel says. "I didn't like gymnastics for gymnastics. I liked them because they danced."
Rommel started taking tap dance and ballet classes in seventh grade, and entering his freshman year of high school, he set the goal to become a professional dancer.
Despite spending all this time around kids at gymnastics, swimming and dance, Rommel isolated himself because he felt different.
"I never wanted to kiss the pink Power Ranger, I wanted to kiss the red one," Rommel says of his early attraction to guys.
It proved to be a debilitating difference.
"I was really quiet in elementary school and middle school just because I was so uncomfortable around big groups of guys," Rommel says. "I'm not a quiet person. I'm very extroverted. ... I love making jokes and being the center of attention."
Handler handles it
Rommel coped with his discomfort by reading. In middle school, he used any extra time changing classes to read. He'd regularly wander around the public library to find new books.
A book that piqued his interest early in high school was Chelsea Handler's "My Horizontal Life: A Collection of One-Night Stands." Rommel frequently watched the comedian's late-night show "Chelsea Lately" after his evening dance rehearsal, but her book was an awakening for him.
"Until then, I'd always kind of thought of sex as [something to whisper about]," Rommel says. "But then she was like, ‘No, people have sex. It's not something you need to be ashamed of or worried about.' "
Though Rommel had been around gay men since he started dancing seriously, sex — and particularly gay sex — were taboo topics in his Christian home. Rommel, who dated girls in junior high and the beginning of high school, knew he felt a stronger attraction to boys than girls. It took reading Handler's "Horizontal Life" for Rommel to be OK with his attraction.
"It helped directly," Rommel says. "She was just very comfortable and very open about her sex life, and it's just something that I took and saw and ran with."
The self-acceptance Rommel found through Handler did not translate to acceptance from his mom, a devout Presbyterian. He told his mom he's gay for the first time the winter of his sophomore year. She cried and said she'd get him help. When Nathan concluded swimming season that spring, his parents paid for him to visit a Christian therapist.
Nathan's lack of cooperation with the therapist led to his mom ending the counseling after about five sessions, and it would be years before they talked again about him being gay. From his sophomore year forward, Rommel identified as gay, but he felt hesitant to be open about it.
Hope Farnsworth, a high school classmate of Rommel's, never saw or heard of him explicitly tell anyone that he's gay. She says the closest thing to it was him joking that a member of the boys soccer team was cute.
"No one knew his personal life in high school," says Farnsworth, who developed a close friendship with Rommel after high school.
Nathan Rommel in a Hope College production (Photo by Erik Alberg of Hope College)
The first person to break through Rommel's façade came during his senior year. Through a spring production of "Xanadu," he met Tanner Rose.
"We became fast friends," Rose says.
Rommel blames his busy schedule with dance rehearsals and swimming practice as the reason he didn't develop close friendships during high school.
But with Rose, they were together for "Xanadu" rehearsals 12 hours a day throughout spring break, and that also accelerated the relationship.
"I had never felt that way about another person," Rommel says. "It was very easy for me to open up to him and talk to him."
Xanadu's final show was March 18, and after that, Rose and Rommel started dating. Rose started to see the difference between public Nathan and private Nathan.
"When it was just us and we were one-on-one, he was humorous and he was funny, but it wasn't showy," Rose says. "Then he got out with our group of friends, and it was him just being a goofball for everyone, and it made the one-on-one time with him even more special."
Rommel admits a grade school friend is the only person outside his family he felt close to before Rose. As his relationship with Rose progressed, Rommel decided to broach the topic of being gay with his parents, something he hadn't done since therapy ended two years earlier. On the night of April 7, he walked into their bedroom.
"I was just a passenger. My mouth was talking," Rommel says. "I walked in. My mom probably asked me a question, and it just came right out."
For the next several weeks, Rommel's parents tried to keep him from seeing Rose by grounding him. They even threatened to keep Rommel from being in a May performance of "Chicago" that would include Rose, but the two continued their relationship despite seeing each other infrequently.
His parents relented about "Chicago," but Rommel felt the relationship was strained with his parents from when they learned about Rose until he left for college.
The relationship between Rose and Rommel continued through the summer with them mutually agreeing to end it before going to college. The relationship had been over for a few days when he mentioned Rose to Hope women's swimmer Kyleigh Sheldon.
Rommel put no qualifiers or restraints on Sheldon after telling her that he's gay, and he experienced a surprising feeling as it spread from one person to another that night.
"If people are telling the truth about me to everyone then what am I going to do about it," Rommel says. "Since they were just telling what I had already told people, it was making less work for me."
A new Hope
John Patnott grew up in San Francisco. He then swam and coached at Fresno State, and in 1978, he received the opportunity to be the first swimming coach at Hope College. Establishing the program, Patnott tried to create a fun environment where the athletes supported each other.
He started with six guys that first season, and this year's roster includes 27 men's swimmers and divers.
"We support one another all the time," Patnott says. "We've always taught that at Hope, and the kids embrace it. ... That's just been our environment for the last 38 years."
Rommel knew he was joining a successful program when he chose Hope — 11 times the men's swimming team has placed top 10 in NCAA Division III. He didn't expect the camaraderie.
"The [guys on the] team have become my closest friends, definitely the closest friends I've ever had in my life," Rommel says.
Team members eat nearly every meal together, train together, and go camping together each September. They also take time to just hangout and talk, something unusual for Rommel growing up.
"He was always dancing; he's traveling around. He didn't really have time to sit around and play video games and do that kind of dumb stuff with his friends," says Duncan MacLean, a Hope swimmer and Rommel's roommate the last three years. "When we are just hanging out with our friends and having a good time doing nothing, you can tell he enjoys that."
Heading to college, Rommel wasn't sure how much longer he would swim.
He didn't enjoy swimming in high school, but he was good at it. Rommel won two relay state titles and says at the end of high school he just couldn't imagine not being on a swim team.
"It [high school swimming] was just something that I was good at, and I like being good at things," Rommel says.
But his Hope teammates reignited Rommel's love for the sport.
The past four years, Rommel has been one of the team's top butterfly swimmers, and he owns the fifth fastest 200-yard butterfly in school history (1 minute, 55.7 seconds).
"When I do finish my four years here at Hope, I'll know how close I was to being completely done [with swimming] a number of times, but I stuck it through and went as far as I could," Rommel says.
His parents' support is a main reason he continued to swim throughout the past 15 years. He has not talked to them about his sexuality since his senior year of high school, but while at Hope, he's gained an appreciation for his parents that he didn't have in high school.
"I kind of got catapulted into the lap of luxury," Rommel says. "I went from a teen mom to two wonderful parents that have given me every whim and whimsy that I could think of and have taken care of me and provided me with an amazing education. There is no rift."
Knowing his place
A few years ago, Rommel visited MacLean's parents' house. Hanging on a wall, Rommel saw a large MacLean family tree.
Seeing that, Rommel experienced an isolating feeling that occurred frequently before coming to Hope College. Rommel says it's a mix of being sad and upset.
"I don't feel like I belong to any population groups," says Rommel, who is white with brown eyes and straight, brown hair. "I have no idea where my biological ancestors are from or my heritage. ... They have a huge family tree, and I have no clue."
On top of being adopted himself, Rommel's been told that his birth mom was adopted when she was born, too. Rommel has considered taking a DNA test to learn his ethnic heritage, but right now, he doesn't plan to do that.
A reason to feel content is that Rommel now finds himself connected to more people than ever — his relationship with his parents is strong, he considers every Hope men's swimmer a close friend, and he's proud to identify as a member of the LGBT community.
The important things in front of him are finishing his senior season of swimming then graduating in May with a double major in dance and Spanish. They will be two accomplishments that he doubted were possible as he walked to a cookout on a humid August night four years ago.
"Having no idea what you're getting yourself into leaving home freshman year of college, I figured out how to float," Rommel says. "Some people sink, and I stayed out on top."
Nathan Rommel is a senior on the Hope College men's swimming team. You can find him on Facebook. He can also be reached via email firstname.lastname@example.org
Erik Hall is a member of the Associated Press Sports Editors. You can follow him on Twitter @HallErik or reach him by email email@example.com.