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Nick McCarvel on being a gay sports writer in an often very straight world

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Nick McCarvel covers tennis and Olympic sports.

Nick McCarvel is a staple at tennis events worldwide.
Jimmie48 Photography

I was walking along the beach on Fire Island in the summer of 2015 when I stumbled across sports writer Nick McCarvel building a sand castle. We struck up a conversation without knowing whom the other was but quickly realized we’d both been reading the other’s work for years. While he obviously had known I was gay, I had no idea the man behind so many tennis bylines was gay too (OK, maybe I could have taken a guess).

I followed McCarvel on social media at the time and had never seen him talk about being gay. Yet there he was venturing out to the Pines every other weekend in the summer of 2015 with a bunch of friends.

I recently asked him if he’d ever talked about being gay specifically in the media — surprisingly, he had not. Now the sports writer — who has contributed to USA Today, NBC Sports, ESPN and others on both tennis and various Olympic sports — shares some insights into being gay in the world of elite sports writing and whether he’s been able to help LGBT athletes, coaches and media members find their way to their own truths.

Cyd Zeigler: First can you give me a couple highlights of what you've been up to professionally this year? Just want to make sure I don't screw it up.

Nick McCarvel: This year I covered my second Olympics and first Summer Games in Rio, this time for TeamUSA.org and the USOC. (In 2014 I worked for NBC as a figure skating reporter.) I mostly covered gymnastics (including in the lead-up to Rio - mostly for USA Gymnastics’ website and social, not TeamUSA.org) but also wrote stories on swimming (including Michael Phelps’ last two nights), indoor volleyball, men’s diving, fencing, women’s water polo and - of course! - tennis.

In 2016 I spent my second year as the tennis contributor for USA TODAY Sports, covering all four majors for them. For other tennis events, I once again worked in a variety of roles for tournaments in Brisbane, Indian Wells, Miami, Charleston, Toronto, Hong Kong and Singapore - everything from writing stories to managing social media accounts to hosting Facebook Live segments to doing on-court announcing.

Zeigler: When did your love of tennis start?

McCarvel: I started playing tennis at the age of 5 in the Helena, Mont., public parks summer program. We grew up one block away from the courts that hosted the lessons, so I would cross the street to the Civic Center and go there every morning. With two older brothers, I think I sort of “took to” tennis because it was my own: They were big into soccer and basketball and my love was more with tennis and track and field. I was an avid hurdler as a young teenager, but when I got to high school, I had to pick between tennis and track.

My grandpa Jack McCarvel was a big tennis player, as was my uncle John Etchart. My dad was OK (he and my mom met as competitive racquetball players), but I couldn’t beat him until I was 15. I still remember finally being able to do so though… what a feeling! Watching tennis, I loved Gustavo Kuerten, Andre Agassi, Monica Seles and Jennifer Capriati, and I would spend hours in our back alley behind our house hitting against an old barnyard wall (remember: this is Montana!) after watching matches on TV. I think I won Wimbledon at least seven times in the alley.

In those moments in the alley, I was the players, the TV commentators, the chair umpire and the crowd all at once. I was in my own little world, really.

Zeigler: What was your first big break in sports writing?

McCarvel: Probably an internship at TENNIS Magazine in 2007. I had been in New York for the first time in my life at Thanksgiving in 2006, visiting my childhood friend Matt Murphy, who is now a successful photographer. I walked into the TENNIS offices and asked about an internship on the Monday after the holiday weekend. The office manager, Tim Littlefield, told me who to email. That was that.

After I moved to New York in the fall of 2008 following college (Matt and I shared a studio apartment), I would say my first big break was a byline in the New York Times. The Times went hard on their blogs system, and tennis got its own blog called Straight Sets. I called a million people at the Times and finally got someone to call me back. I said, “I’m going to Wimbledon and would like to contribute to the blog.” I knew that they were hungry for content and that me being on the ground there would help. My brothers and I had planned a family trip to Ireland and I tacked on Wimbledon for a few days after. It was only a few blog posts, but I hadn’t yet lived in NYC for a year and I could call myself a New York Times contributor at the age of 23. But I still worked at Housing Works Bookstore in Soho for another year and a half after that, mind you. It was the first and hardest step of many.

McCarvel has written for various publications, including USA Today.

Zeigler: How long have you been openly gay in your personal life?

McCarvel: I came out to those close to me in my junior and senior years of high school. I grew up in a largely Catholic family in Montana, so there were some challenges, but for the most part I was greeted with open arms and total support by my family and close friends.

High school was more of a challenge: I was student body president and editor-in-chief of the newspaper, but I also joined a million clubs so that I didn’t have to eat lunch alone. It really was this work-hard-to-stay-occupied mentality. I had a wonderful childhood, don’t get me wrong, but at 15, 16, 17 all I could think was to work my ass off so that I could get to Seattle or Portland or San Francisco. I knew that there was life beyond Montana, but at that point it all just seemed like a fantasy.

Zeigler: Did you think early on that you would have to keep that away from your professional life?

McCarvel: I’ve always wondered if I’ve stayed away from more mainstream, macho sports because of my sexuality. I don’t think so - I’m just not that into the NFL, NHL or the MLB (nor am I an expert on those sports, actually). But I think I operated with a fair amount of trepidation to start, for sure. Early in my career in tennis content I met other out and gay individuals, and that made me confident that I could be whoever I wanted to be as long as I worked hard and was professional in doing so.

Never did a player or agent or PR person make me feel any less than the other people he or she was dealing with.

I love writing about more niche sports because I think the stories are that much more interesting, more relatable. There have been cracks of homophobia in every sport I’ve covered, but for the most part I’ve felt like I could just be myself and none of that would be an issue. I’ve never really felt threatened or slighted because of it, that’s for sure. I’m lucky in that sense.

Zeigler: Has being gay ever been a problem for you in your sports writing career?

McCarvel: I think perhaps one way it holds me back is that I’m not a “Hey bro” or “Sup dude?” kind of guy. That’s just not me. That sometimes holds me back in my connection with male athletes, but if that means that I’m not fist-bumping player X before I ask him questions, so be it. I’m after more cerebral stuff in my coverage, anyway, and think I’ve done a decent job at creating those authentic relationships.

Sports — celebrity, really — can be so fake and an industry of what-can-you-do-for-me? People ask me my favorite players and I always list off the ones who will look me in the eye, be honest, engage, have fun, be introspective. I know: Their job is to be athletes, not PR people, but why is Roger Federer one of the most famous and well-liked athletes in the world? I can promise you, it’s not just because of those 17 Grand Slams….

Nick McCarvel has talked to the world’s best tennis players, including Roger Federer.

Zeigler: Has it ever been an advantage?

McCarvel: I think it sometimes helps with the females that I cover, yes. They can sense that I’m gay (or they know because I’ve now been around for a few years and don’t hold back on social media or in person) and they can be campy with me if it’s an appropriate time, or just let their guard down. I don’t think I’ve ever misused it, but I’m also careful to know what is appropriate when, and how to approach things in the most professional of manners.

At the same time, my hope is to always have fun with the athletes I work with and let their stories end up being the brightest piece of the puzzle. That’s always my focus.

Zeigler: Have you had athletes, coaches or other media professionals talk to you about being gay, them looking for insights or advice about how to handle their own personal lives?

McCarvel: Less so athletes and coaches. Well, I have spoken with a few athletes who have been in the closet and are curious about what to do, or steps to take. I have some colleagues who are in or out of the closet in certain settings, and I have a sort of brotherhood with them that I try and use to encourage them to continue to do what they’re doing with confidence.

I can’t tell you how many emails I’ve gotten, or Twitter messages, from young writers, gay or not, who are after advice. I always tell them to just keep going. Ask questions, be yourself, pitch editors, find new stories. It’s a competitive (and low-paying) market, but one that is rewarded in the riches of travel, life experience, major athletic events and the satisfaction of being a part of a bigger moment. I love that, and I try to push others to embrace it the same.

Zeigler: Is there one aspect of your job you enjoy the most?

McCarvel: I think the funnest part of my job for me is the reaction I get from other gay men I meet in New York when I’m home or traveling for work. “You work in tennis? You’ve been to the Olympics?!” They’re genuinely excited and want to know some strange detail about Serena Williams, or if Novak Djokovic is nice.

I am passionate about what I’m doing, and I’ve also gotten to travel the world, work closely with these athletes and push myself to do more and work harder through all of it. That’s pretty satisfying, to be honest.

Zeigler: Finally, any good stories (that I can print) from your life about being gay and a sports writer?

McCarvel: I’ve been so honored to have worked with the gay athletes that I have: Jason Collins has become a friend; I’ve gotten to write features on figure skaters Eric Radford and Adam Rippon after they came out. Moreover, I’ve learned so much about gay culture all over the world: Melbourne, London, Paris, Rome, Hong Kong, Sydney, Rio. We have a lot of work to do and us sharing who we are - sharing our stories - can only continue to help that.

One funny thing that comes to mind is this past year at the French Open I was in the main media room late one night finishing a story and said goodbye to a colleague. He said to me, “Have fun out in Paris tonight, chasing ladies and such….”

This is someone I’ve known for a long time and have worked closely with, and I kind of chuckled to myself, thinking, “Wait. Does he not know I’m gay?”

But the more I thought about it the more I realized he probably just didn’t care, and said what he did while his head was buried in his laptop because he was on a filing deadline. I do promise you there was no chasing ladies for me in Paris that night - or any!

Nick McCarvel is on Facebook. You can also find him on Twitter and Instagram @NickMcCarvel.