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Gay college track and cross-country coach has finally stopped running away

Tony Nicolosi has found support from his team and school

Tony Nicolosi hopes his coming out as the very rare publicly out gay NCAA track coach helps others.
Team Prep USA/ High Altitude Performance Lab

In 2008 I was a 20-year-old cross-country runner at the University of Tampa. I was the fastest runner on the team and essentially the leader of the group of 15 men.

I had a penchant for scolding my teammates after a poor practice. My tone was aggressive and abrasive, unhappy with what I deemed a lack of dedication to our goals. As someone who had a desire to have a career in coaching, my communication skills were not entirely effective.

Anything social in my life had to be planned days in advance. I couldn’t agree to anything until I knew when I could fit in my 10-mile runs during the sweltering Tampa heat. I was not concerned with a stereotypical college experience. I had been working as an assistant cross-country coach at my high school, and a normal Friday consisted of driving 50 minutes to their practice, not going out to bars or parties.

I was focused solely on the upcoming conference championships, both for myself as an athlete and for my team that I coached. The only thoughts of the future were on where my coaching career could potentially take me.

Each morning for five years I woke up at 6:00 AM to continue to run what would amass to be thousands of miles over my collegiate career. When my NCAA athletic career ended, the pursuit of an NCAA coaching career began.

Athletically, I would never run that much again. Mentally, I would continue running for years, avoiding the fact that I was gay.

It took eight years of working my way up the ladder to become the head coach of cross-country and track and field at Cal State East Bay. To my knowledge I am now the first and only publicly out gay cross-country and track coach in the NCAA. I honestly could not tell you how many are actually out there, because I have never met one.

At 29, I am in my 10th year of coaching at the NCAA or high school level. I am the youngest head coach in my athletic department and the youngest in my conference for my sports. The whole time I have been in constant fear that being out would jeopardize getting or keeping a job, as well how the team would perceive me.

The first five years were spent at Seminole High School, developing under a local coaching legend I consider a father figure (who still doesn’t know I am gay – well, now he might). In those five years, I competed as a full-time NCAA student-athlete, as well as driving two hours a day to and from the high school practice.

After working many part-time jobs to stay afloat, I was fortunate to be hired at 24 as a graduate assistant at a D2 school in South Florida. I was given almost complete control of training, something most assistants at any level could only dream of.

The results spoke for themselves: in four months the men won their first – and still only – conference and regional championships in program history, advancing to the NCAA championships. The women qualified for their first NCAA cross-country championship race as well.

And then I quit.

I cracked under the pressure. A perfect cocktail of self-imposed pressure to win mixed with stress and anxiety over being gay. I walked away from everything in an effort to find balance and clarity.

After some soul searching, I was fortunate to get an opportunity with one of the most prestigious cross-country programs in the NCAA’s D2: Western State. I still was not out to my parents or past coaches, yet I decided to take the assistant coaching job in Gunnison, Colo.

Gunnison is the coldest city in the state, with a population of 5,000, and the job paid $3,000 annually. There was major risk involved, but the reward would be to leave with the skills to build a national championship caliber program of my own. In my mind, I would ultimately be putting any attempts to live whatever semblance I knew of an openly gay life to the side.

I worked as a “normal” part-time assistant in the NCAA. I voluntarily worked 10+ hour days. I was on the road recruiting or at meets every weekend. There would be months without a true day off. I threw myself into this opportunity with everything I had.

From a professional standpoint, I accomplished everything I set out to do at Western. I got to work under two phenomenal head coaches who have taught me an incredible amount about how to build and run a program. We came incredibly close to winning a cross-country national championship, and I got the chance to help coach several All-Americans.

Personally I reached the lowest points of my life. I was out of my comfort zone in every way imaginable. I experienced my first (and only) relationship, and consequential breakup, that left me devastated. I was thousands of miles away from family and closest friends. I was very broke and, as a lifelong Florida boy, very cold. The next closest “city” was an hour away, and I had sold my car to afford life anyway.

I hated not being at work, because I would have to spend time by myself, dealing with the realization of how alone I felt. I was still pretty closeted and did not know whom I could talk to.

In the middle of my second year, I almost walked away from it all again. I had been applying for dozens of jobs I felt qualified for with little to no responses. It became harder and harder to see the light at the end of the tunnel. I finally told my parents what was going on, and my mother almost convinced me to move home. If I had quit for a second time, my coaching career certainly would have been over.

Tony Nicolosi (left) and the Cal State East Bay women’s cross-country team.

I luckily made the most incredible friends who helped me survive my two years there. Those friends are all straight, and with the exception of my first true gay friends I’ve made here at East Bay, I have only ever had straight friends. I honestly don’t know how I made it through that time period, but the effort paid off with my job at East Bay.

Surviving those years without giving up will fuel me through any tough situation for the rest of my career.

I have struggled for some time on this decision to tell a very private story in a very public way. Many factors and people have led to me making this decision. For my sport as a whole, I am frustrated that despite many people saying “I didn’t think being gay was an issue anymore”, there doesn’t seem to be a clear openness in the coaching ranks. As a person, I have felt this burden of hiding who I am has held me back from allowing me to do what I want the most, and that is to be a successful coach.

I was not happy in Florida, and I was not happy in Colorado. I loved coaching, but I have preoccupied myself with my career to avoid dealing with my own real personal life. I assumed moving to the Bay Area of California would magically fix all of my problems with my personal life, but that was not the case. My unhappiness had little to do with location, and everything to do with not accepting myself. As an assistant, the pressure was different, because I was not calling the shots or getting a lot of criticism. But now as a head coach, I have walked around on egg shells, afraid of anyone knowing who I really was. I have been so fearful that being gay could disrupt my message to my team.

My goals are to build a national championship program. To do that, any number of things has to go perfectly. I have always felt being openly gay would be a distraction to those goals. But in the last few months it has become clear to me. To be the leader of a program, I have to have a clear head. I have to be confident in myself and what I say. I have to convey integrity and honesty.

Until now, I have not done that.

In the last few weeks I have told my athletes and athletic director that I am gay. The response has been overwhelmingly positive. All the athletes want to do is to run fast, and this does not change my ability to help them make that a reality. Their response helped lift a huge weight off my shoulders, and I have already noticed a major difference in my communication with them. I am not abrasive, stressed, or hiding something when talking to them. Instead, I am clear-headed, confident and focused.

Going forward, I am excited to see what is in store for my team and me. My hope is in five years LGBT issues are non-issues in sports. In some circles it already is a non-issue, and it certainly is not an issue at Cal State East Bay.

I am relieved that I do not have to run away anymore, and I can now focus clearly on what is most important to me.

Tony Nicolosi can be found on Facebook, and on Twitter @utxc. You can also email him at tony.nicolosi@csueastbay.edu.