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Gay college athlete has found happiness and acceptance as a pole vaulter

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Zach Greenawalt competes in the pole vault for Juniata College.

Zach Greenawalt has found renewed happiness since returning to pole vault.

Gay.

A word with only three letters and such a powerful meaning.

The conceptualization of this word has brought people together and ripped them apart making it difficult for people like me to think, “Is this what being gay actually is like? Is being gay really just another selfish notion that hurts the people close to me? Is this something that I accidentally chose? Can this word ever provide me with a sense of unity and community? Can I even say this word out loud?”...Gay?

These were all thoughts that had been circling through my head throughout my youth. Prior to coming out, I felt alone. I felt scared, helpless, like I didn’t matter. I felt as though I would have to continue my life in a secretive solitude, in a small, conservative town. I felt like each “It Gets Better” video was further and further away from reality and was unrelatable in almost every fashion.

This began to change once I discovered my passion for track and field. After exploring event after event, pole vaulting had shone through as something I found I was good at. After joining a pole vaulting club, working out more frequently, and practicing year-round, I finally found something to devote myself to. I finally found something that made me feel good about myself and brought me from the depths of self-examination to the peak of self-achievement.

I went on to break my school’s pole vault record and re-broke that very same record five more times.

I dedicated such a vast majority of my high school years to athletics and academics that I didn’t give my social life much of a chance. I put my worries of being gay on hold and subconsciously used pole vaulting as a mask, a way to numb the pain.

The months were counting down to graduation day, and I knew I would regret it if my high school career came to end, I was handed that diploma and no one knew the real me.

I told my closest friend and teammate, Maggie, when I felt that the time was right. We had just finished playing with an entire room full of puppies at a pet store. Despite all of that joy and excitement, it was one of the scariest moments of my entire life.

Amidst my swirling fear and angst, I found a moment to tell her I’m gay. She said that being gay would never hurt the way that she saw me, and that she loved me even more than she did before.

That day made our friendship stronger than before. Coming out to Maggie was more impactful than I had ever expected. It wasn’t just me fearfully muttering the words “I’m gay,” but rather me realizing that telling that one true friend made me feel like I mattered. For once. I’m not talking about “me” as in the “me” or the outer self that everyone thought I was, but rather just...me. Zach.

My coming out to her was the beginning of a domino effect. Each person I told made it easier to tell the next. Sure, there were bumps in the road. Hell, there were mountains in the road too, but I didn’t give up. Some people just could not accept that I was gay, but I knew that I couldn’t let people hold me back from pursuing my own happiness to be honest and comfortable in my own skin. I took the good and I took the bad. I took the acceptance and the love, and I used it to combat the hate.

Arriving at my first year of college changed a lot of things.

I was no longer pole vaulting, and that correlatively impacted my social life. I was in a new place where I was expected to do new things, and it was all very overwhelming. I found myself in a position where I was desperate to please others, ultimately putting myself last. I was stuck.

There were people who were really important to me who had disapproved of my “lifestyle.” My “lifestyle?” As I thought about this, I couldn’t help but constantly think, “Do you mean my life?” It was difficult for me hearing things like “What will this person or that person think of you whenever they find out?” My response was always, “I don’t care,” but it was still like I was doing something wrong and inconveniencing everyone else around me by simply being me and sharing that with the people I cared about.

People close to me grew wary of what others would think of them just because they knew me and that I was gay. All around me I kept hearing “We love you, we accept you, and we want you to be yourself...but just not like that.”

At the conclusion of my first year of college I had much to look back on. I had managed to make things work, but I was nowhere near where I wanted to be. I needed my sport back, but more importantly, I needed my life back.

I left that school for Juniata College, an NCAA Div. III school 45 minutes south of Penn State. I surrounded myself with more selective and accepting people, and I began to fixate myself on the things in life that had once made me feel great.

At the beginning of the summer I joined the track team at Juniata College. I had felt as though more people were coming to terms with my authenticity and the tension was rapidly declining. I always tried to keep as much of a positive attitude as I could.

With track and field back in my life I once again felt happy and accepted. In high school it had been a simple source of my happiness, and having it back in my life made it easier to focus on the positive things in my life. Like I mattered.

I am finally back at the point in my life where there is no hiding. Cowering to my own fear of the world and what it thinks of me is no longer an option.

I now feel compelled to stand up for what is just and for what I believe in. I must stand up for myself in order to seek my happiness and pursue my long-time goal of helping others. After a long journey, I feel as though I have become fortunate enough to be surrounded by the most loving and accepting group of friends and family that anyone could ask for.

I have an outstanding team with great coaches who let me practice and compete as me. My team is like a family to me, and this time I do mean the real me.

Life is tough at times. While I have come full-circle with my self-acceptance, there are still many who have not. I want to help those who may feel alone or like they don’t matter at all. I want to help create a world where people can be whatever and whomever they wish to be.

Take it from a pole vaulter, the sky is your limit! Be happy, be you, and be true!

You can find Zach Greenawalt on Facebook, and on Instagram @ZGreenawalt. You can also email him at zgreenawalt15@gmail.com.