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When gay University of Iowa swimmer dropped his mask, he found freedom

Mike Nelson had to dive into his sexuality to keep himself from sinking.

Mike Nelson
Mike Nelson swam four years at the University of Iowa

For much of my high school life, I strived to be an ideal member of society. To maintain this persona, I established certain goals, such as being a great student, one hell of a competitor and a great leader. These goals allowed me to “fit in” and find my peaceful niche in the high school realm.

On the outside I was calm and collected, but on the inside, I was always fighting between who I was and who I was pretending to be. I compartmentalized my hidden sexuality into a tiny box that I sought to never disclose. I did not want this part of who I was to dictate how everyone else perceived me. Therefore, I went through high school as Mike Nelson, the “straight” student-athlete, the “All-American kid,” and the classic boy next door. When I arrived at the University of Iowa, however, I began to question why I had reservations about being viewed as a gay male.

From my first day on campus in August 2012 and to my first practices with Iowa’s Swimming and Diving teams, I was welcomed with open arms and B1G smiles. My teammates became my family; my fellow recruiting class became my siblings. I had the most supportive team and staff I could imagine. Nonetheless, I was still hiding my sexuality. After my freshman season concluded, who I was and who I wanted to be began to come into conflict more often. It was affecting my emotions and my demeanor. This internal war had begun to take a serious toll on my mind, my body and my heart. What should have been a great finish to my freshman season was swiftly diminished by fear and anxiety.

That spring, long runs throughout Iowa City became my escape. I ran past the point of exhaustion, past the point of thought and past the point of dealing with my problems. For anywhere from two to four or more hours, I would get away from the false reality that I had established. This binge running became my religion; it numbed my brain, my body, and became the only time I felt anything other than fear or pain. I would evade questions from teammates who had noticed my obvious behavior changes. Instead, I made up more lies about being overwhelmed by school or practices. That was when self-hating ideas began to own my waking thoughts.

Paranoia.

“Everyone knows that you’re hiding something. You might as well have ‘homo’ written across

your forehead. Queer.”

Worst thoughts.

“God hates you. I hate you.”

These judgments and many other self-defeating ideas only fueled my paranoia. They ran in constant cycles throughout my head until I felt as if I was going to explode. Some days I could barely lift my backpack because of an intense morning lift. Still, I forced myself to run on these days in order to cope with my daily struggles.

As honest as my team, friends and staff had been with me that year, I continued to hurl out lie after lie to conceal my true sexuality. It was time for a change.

While competing for the Hawkeyes at the 2013 Phillips 66 USA Swimming National Championships, I decided it was time to tell my family and teammates that I was gay. I had spent that summer in Iowa for training purposes, but also so that I might finally learn to be real with myself and who I wanted to be. Every future that I dreamed of was only going to be possible if I could take down the front that I had promoted for years and instead start being who I truly was. Thus, I decided to begin my honesty campaign with those who I had lied to the longest: my family.

I need to establish how incredibly supportive my parents and siblings have always been of my endeavors, both academically and athletically. They have never stopped loving me unconditionally and I thank God for that every day. However, my family was definitely surprised when I finally told them that I was gay and had been withholding the truth for years. Due in large part to the fact that my family had always perceived me to be honest, my coming out made our family dynamic uneasy as I returned to Iowa for my sophomore year.

Though it took some time and help from the athletic department’s sports psychologist, I began to gain back some sanity that fall. It is often perceived that athletes are not supposed to be weak or need help. Through brute strength and perseverance, we are expected to touch the wall first, run the fastest, and jump the highest. There is no room to be physically or mentally weak. Such perceptions influenced my own reservations about finally seeking help. Weary to begin mental health sessions, it was hard for me to finally talk to someone about being gay. However, I will never forget the first time that I articulated my sexuality while sitting with the psychologist.

There is something so raw and liberating about finally vocalizing the words, “I’m gay,” that I could not help but get emotional. Years of denial, guilt, and dishonesty slipped away and it was as if the world started spinning a completely different way. The more I said it, the easier it became for me to acknowledge. Fears turned into strengths and doubts turned into confidence. From this new vantage point, I could finally see the mental trauma that I had subjected myself to live through.

Thus, we began to deconstruct this twisted reality that I had built in order to separate the truths from the lies. In time, these sessions helped combat the self-hating nature that I had developed and assisted me in restoring open discussions with my family.

Mike Nelson with Iowa teammate Emma Sougstad.

Once my family and I had established a stable, transparent relationship, I began to figure out how I wanted to handle telling my fellow Hawkeyes about my sexuality. In order to assure that our team’s focus was strictly on succeeding in and out of the pool that fall, I waited until after our annual midseason invite to gather the men from my class to tell them the truth about who I was.

Through group messaging, I asked the guys to meet me and my roommates in my dorm room the Monday night after midseason. Although it was routine for us to meet as a group, I knew that this meeting would be far from typical. As each person filed into the room, my heartrate began to climb. My mind was racing, my palms were sweating, and my body was tense. Eventually, the chatter died down and heads turned in my direction as I sat down atop my desk and faced the group.

There was no turning back.

To start the conversation, I began talking about my struggles from that year: the running, the anxiety, and the lies. With each explanation, I could tell that my teammates were beginning to get a clearer idea of the extent of my troubles.

With a deep breath, I uttered, “I’m gay.” I explained that I had been coming to terms with my sexuality for years. For a moment I looked down at my palms, unsure of how each person was processing the information in the moments that followed. With one more deep breath, I looked up and braced for any reaction.

As I looked around, nothing but smiles met my gaze.

Unsurprisingly, all the guys agreed that it did not change how they perceived me as a teammate and competitor. If anything, I think the biggest issue was letting me know that I was still expected to do dolphin kicks instead of breaststroke pullouts during underwater sets. To say I was relieved would be an understatement.

From that moment on, and with my full endorsement, news of my coming out spread throughout the entire athletic department. Coach, administrator, and athlete alike continued to greet me around campus, both in the classroom and on deck. They would often express how genuinely happy they were for me for feeling comfortable enough to be honest with myself and the community.

With a mixture of happiness and relief, I continued to receive countless questions about my journey and endless support from everyone that I encountered. It turns out that not only had I signed with an incredibly supportive collegiate team, I had also become a member of one of the most inclusive athletic programs in the country.

As the years progressed, my transparency about my sexuality came to deconstruct the internal walls that I had built to conceal who I truly was. Relationships between friends, family, teammates and coaches became more dynamic, more meaningful and definitely more important. As a result, most of the constant anxiety that I had felt for years diminished and I was able to purely focus on enjoying swimming again.

In all, my athletic career at Iowa consisted of competing at some of the fastest meets in the nation. During my collegiate career, I was a four-year varsity letter-winner, I participated at the 2015 NCAA Division 1 Swimming and Diving Championships and I concluded my Hawkeye career at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Swimming Team Trials. My years of eligibility at Iowa entailed some unbelievable opportunities with people who I value on more intimate levels than I knew to be possible. In the core of my being, I know that I owe both internal and external successes to the support from my university and my team.

Currently, I am continuing my education as a Ph.D. student in Industrial/Organizational Psychology. In regards to future athletic pursuits, I will not be committing to much pool time in the near future, but I have not ruled it out forever. Instead, I will continue to exercise and learn to go pro in something other than swimming.

Although my undergraduate years at Iowa have come to a close, I want to continue to do my best to lead by example in the arena of LGBTQ scholar-athletes. My journey of coming out is simply another illustration of how rewarding life can be once you learn to not only be true to who you are, but also after you begin to love all that makes you, you. Balancing athletics and academics can be a struggle in and of itself and even more so when you are fighting yourself for control. Everyone’s journey to self-acceptance is beautifully unique and I plan to celebrate that notion for the rest of my life with as much affection and intensity as my team celebrated my own story.

Iowa’s athletic department sums it up best for its student-athletes: “Win. Graduate. Do it right.” Sitting here in hindsight, I believe I did exactly that.

Mike Nelson, 22, is a 2016 graduate of the University of Iowa where he majored in Psychology as a member of the men’s swim team. He can be reached at mrnelso16@gmail.com. (Instagram and Twitter: mr_nels).