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Gay water polo player came out to teammates. 3 days later they elected him captain.

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Now a Penn State freshman, Tony Covell finds a renewed passion for his sport.

Tony Covell
Photo by Shannon Kavanagh

Two weeks before the start of my high school senior season I sent the riskiest text of my life. I told some of my fellow soon-to-be seniors that I was dating a boy. Three weeks later, I was chosen as one of the three captains of the water polo team.

I was on a road trip home with my sister, Lindsey, after visiting some colleges in Washington D.C. in 2015. We were stopped at a small grocery store and Lindsey was using the bathroom. I was waiting in the passenger seat with sweaty hands and shaky fingers, writing out a text that went something along the lines of:

“Hey guys, I just want to let you all know before everyone else starts to find out, because you’re my brothers, but I’m dating a boy. This is just who I am, who I always have been, and it changes nothing about me. The only thing that is different is that you guys know about it now.

The responses I received were incredible, and in hindsight, I should have never been worried knowing the character that these three guys have. Carter, Quinn, and Dom, my three closest brothers on the team, all sent texts back, saying things that included, “You’re still our brother and nothing changes that,” and “We’re still owning this season and winning a state championship.”

We had just come off of a winning season of 29-4 and had won the Pennsylvania state championship our junior year. Four of us, Carter, Quinn, Kegan, and I, had been returning starters and our team was all but granted a repeat state championship. Carter, Quinn, and I were chosen as captains of the team and the season started out with great success. We won the East Coast championship and in the following weeks we headed to Erie, Pa., for a tournament.

In our second game in Erie, a close game that was pretty intense and very physical, I took a fist to the forehead. I was defending one of the stronger players on the opposing team and he did not like my defense. He shot the ball and, in his follow through, punched me in the forehead. I had a small split above my eyebrow and a nice lump around it, but continued playing through the game.

However, after the game, I was feeling nauseous, dizzy, and unable to pay attention to my coaches debrief. Honestly I don’t really remember if we even won or what happened throughout that game. I had a concussion and there were four weeks left in my senior season.

I worked effortlessly to try and get cleared by my stubborn doctor so that I could return to the pool for the state tournament, but my efforts were fruitless. Within those four weeks my hair grew healthier and my skin hydrated from the lack of chlorine for the first time in almost eight years, the only upside to this unfortunate situation.

This was the longest I had been out of a pool for years and it had a serious effect of my mental health. I told myself that this was fate and that I wasn’t meant to be an athlete anymore, sports were no longer my forte, morning practices were no longer for me, and the pool was no longer my home. If I couldn’t finish what I started eight years ago in my senior state tournament, then I would simply never continue.

I accepted the fact that there was nothing I could do about my physical health and the team went on to work their hardest without me by their sides. We entered the state tournament as the No. 1 seed, but finished fourth. It was a painful end to a painful season.

Despite this disappointing finish, I consider my senior season, my most successful season. We didn’t get first in the state and I didn’t receive All-State recognition like I wanted to because of my concussion, but I did realize my value and importance that I had struggled with originally.

I found a family I could rely on, my water polo brothers and sisters, who gave me the courage and backbone to face the world. Because of the overwhelming acceptance that I received from my first line of defense I had the strength to be completely honest with myself and be honest with the rest of my friends and family about being gay.

Shannon Kavanagh

While I realized this success, I still remained stubborn on the idea of getting back in the pool. I was stuck on the idea of being in a different stage in my life where sports were no longer a factor. When I decided on Penn State for college, nearly everyone I told would follow up with the question, “Are you playing water polo there?” I consistently answered with, “No, I’m past that part of my life and am ready to just focus on my academics.”

I arrived on campus in late August this summer, avoided the involvement fair because I knew I would be inclined to sign myself up for water polo, and reassured myself that my home was at the desk and not the pool. I struggled immensely with stress in the beginning of the semester. I was overwhelmed by the new workload I was confronted with and also worried about my new environment.

What’s the average Penn State student’s feeling toward gay people? Will I get beat up in a frat house? Would a new team be off put by a gay member on their team?

All of these worries made me feel confident in my decision to stay away from new situations that would put me out of my comfort zone. The reality was, staying away from the pool was actually making things worse; it was making me more miserable than confronting a new situation. I began to regret my decisions to stay out of the pool and texted one of my former teammates who plays for the club polo team. I asked him if it was too late to join and he told me it basically was for the Fall, but Spring semester had opportunities to join and practice and even participate in at least one tournament.

Needless to say, next spring you’ll find me on a new team, making new brothers in a new home, and returning to what I love — all the while being exactly who I am from the very start. I will never hide who I am because making yourself visible is more important now than ever.

I live and have grown up in Pennsylvania, one of the biggest swing states in every election that typically goes blue. This election, too much of the country’s surprise, Pennsylvania went red, giving the electoral votes to the Republicans. At the end of the day, there is nothing anyone can do to change the results of the election, but as a community we need to make ourselves visible and heard.

One of the most difficult parts of this election for me was watching some of my closest friends and family vote for Donald Trump. I don’t find them deplorable and I certainly don’t think they want my rights taken away; I really have no hard feelings toward them.

However, I am aware that their vote enabled an administration to potentially take away my rights, and to me that is personal. When a voter thinks about the possibility of a minority group’s rights being threatened they are more likely to care less if they don’t have a connection.

That’s why I have made myself so visible in this election. That’s why I contacted Outsports just two days after the election. The people threatened by this new administration come from all walks of life — they are athletes, they are musicians, they are brothers, they are sisters, and they are somebody’s child. When a voter sees exactly whose rights they are voting against, their child, their nephew, or their neighbor, it is more likely that this vote will not be done without a thorough thought process. I would rather a thorough, well thought out, informed vote, over a blind vote toward a rhetorically, hateful candidate.

We don’t know what effect the new government will have on our lives as LGBT people. But I encourage everyone to stand up, be visible and make their voices heard. Together, we must be louder and prouder than ever before.

Tony Covell, 18, is a freshman of the class of 2020 at the Penn State University. He is majoring in International Politics and Spanish and can be reached at anthonycovell2@gmail.com, @anthony_covell on Instagram, and Tony Covell on Facebook.

Story editor: Jim Buzinski