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After being outed, gay college runner finds nothing but acceptance

William & Mary track team embraces one of their own after finding out he is gay.

Cavender Salvadori
Cavender Salvadori

WILLIAMSBURG, Va. — Cavender Salvadori must talk to Jacob Sears. Salvadori starts walking to the party where he saw Sears and sends his teammate a text.

Salvadori left the party shortly after midnight with his ex-boyfriend and walked to the College of William & Mary campus. Now, he can't get back soon enough.

He walks as fast as he can. His heart throbs in his chest. Tears come to his eyes, and he takes deep breaths to keep from crying.

Salvadori's ex-boyfriend told him as they walked away from the party that a week earlier he let Sears know about their relationship.

Salvadori had never told his track and field teammates that he's gay. He'd been outed.

"That freaked me the fuck out," Salvadori says. "I can't believe the moment I've been dreading my whole life is about to happen."

The panic Salvadori felt walking back to the house party that May 2, 2015, night made sense to him. He couldn't comprehend being accepted as a gay athlete. Over the next 13 days, the dread he harbored gradually made less sense. Each chance he gave them, his William & Mary teammates showed they treasured him as a person and openly gay man.

"He's my teammate, and this didn't change anything," Sears says. "He my friend. I love him."

Salvadori's ex-boyfriend asked to not be identified and declined to be interviewed for this story. The name Tizio will be used for him.

1. The Confidant

"It was pretty random," Sears says of Tizio revealing his relationship with Salvadori.

Sears worked with Tizio at Ruby Tuesday in Williamsburg. He previously learned Tizio identifies as LGBT, but it surprised him Tizio knew Salvadori let alone that Salvadori is gay.

"That particular way that I found out wasn't the ideal way, but I was determined to try to spin it as positively as I could," Sears says.

It bothered Sears that Salvadori felt a need to keep his sexuality secret, and Sears wanted to talk with his teammate about it. When Sears and Tizio talked the next day, Sears said he wanted Salvadori to know he knew. It took Tizio about a week to talk to Salvadori, but when Sears received Salvadori's late-night text message, the topic seemed obvious.

When the 6-foot-1, 155-pound Salvadori located Sears at the party that night, they went outside. Many of their teammates were inside celebrating successes from earlier that day at the Colonial Athletic Association conference championship meet, so Sears and Salvadori walked a couple blocks and sat at a picnic table outside the School of Education.

It was approaching 1:30 a.m. as they sat across from each other.

"In my head, everything was quiet," Salvadori says. "The only thing that I could hear was the conversation. I was so involved in the conversation itself, because obviously, it was a huge turning point in my life."

Sears tried to ease Salvadori's tension with jokes, and he tried to connect by sharing his own mental health difficulties. Sears also made sure Salvadori knew he loved him.

Salvadori remembers Sears repeated encouraging phrases: "No one cares," "It's what you're attracted to," and "People are people." His first conversation with a straight person, not to mention a teammate, about being gay surprised him.

"It was so relieving, and I felt so strong," Salvadori says.

2. The Consoler

Salvadori planned weeks earlier to start the conversation about his sexuality with his roommate, Faris Sakallah. They had grown close their first two years as William & Mary teammates, but Salvadori repeatedly created reasons to delay the conversation.

Instead of Sakallah being the first to know, he became the person consoling Salvadori after an emotional night.

Around 3 a.m. the morning of Sunday, May 3, Salvadori returned to their apartment from talking with Sears. Sakallah was still awake, and Salvadori asked him to go outside. They walked around the Ludwell Apartment Complex and found a bench. It rained earlier in the night, leaving the sky calm and the campus peaceful.

Once they started to talk, Salvadori pulled the top of the gray sweater he was wearing over his mouth. The tears, which he suppressed talking to Sears, poured now.

"Just say it," Sakallah told him.

Salvadori did: "I'm gay."

Sakallah hugged Salvadori with no regard for the snot and tears.

"It just broke my heart," Sakallah says. "I couldn't bare to see how much pain he was in trying to deal with this."

Their conversation lasted a couple hours and approached dawn in southeastern Virginia. Salvadori explained that the past three months he started using Tinder to meet guys, met Tizio, and developed his first romantic connection. Sakallah learned about the lies Salvadori told to secretly see Tizio. Salvadori explained the betrayal he felt earlier that night to learn Tizio told Sears his secret.

By the end of their talk, Salvadori says, "I remember being emotionally exhausted."

The next day, Sakallah saw Salvadori begin to transform.

"He just looked better," Sakallah says. "He was smiling, which I hadn't seen in a long time. He was just coming back to his old self."

Cav bleacher

Salvadori (far right) sits at a 2014 William & Mary soccer game with his cross country teammates Nick Tyrey (left) and Faris Sakallah.

3. The wingman

Since Salvadori started running cross country in seventh grade, he liked that a clock, not a person, determined his success.

"It [running] was a way for me to objectively do well," says Salvadori, who earned all-state eight times at his Wilmington, Delaware, high school. "You can't argue a really fast time. My whole life, I wanted to be objectively viewed not subjectively. If someone subjectively viewed me, they could call me gay or something like that."

Ryan Gousse became the third teammate to know Salvadori is gay, and that conversation changed Salvadori's relationship with running by connecting his sexuality with his sport. Salvadori texted Gousse that he wanted to tell him something. When Salvadori stopped for a bathroom break during a long workout, Gousse waited for him to learn what he had to say.

As they ran alone the next 30 minutes, Salvadori talked about his self-acceptance. Gousse remembers Salvadori getting choked up and releasing big gasps as he talked about being gay and how it led him to withhold emotions from friends and teammates, particularly in recent months.

Salvadori says Gousse is the most important person he told, because he helped him tell the rest of the team.

"He was there for pretty much everyone I told," Salvadori says. "He was really good at forcing me to tell people, because he knew I wanted to but was terrified to do it."

Through nearly a dozen face-to-face conversations, Salvadori told William & Mary's other distance runners that he now identified as gay. Gousse went, too, just to sit, listen and smile.

"It was kind of fun, because you could see him becoming less bottled up every time," Gousse says. "The first few people, it would take him like five to 10 minutes to actually say it. Then, it was just right off the bat."

4. The Party

On the Friday night at the end of finals week, some runners asked Salvadori a question: How much Ben & Jerry's ice cream can he eat? A year earlier, Salvadori inhaled three pints faster than Sears during a competition.

Would a Vermonster, the Ben & Jerry's 20-scoop sundae, be something he could consume by himself? Of course, a confident Salvadori said.

About that time, members of the William & Mary women's cross country team walked into the house. Salvadori suddenly displayed a face-filling smile to see them toting a Vermonster.

In the 14 days since he started telling teammates, Dylan Hassett was the only women's cross country runner Salvadori told he's gay, and Hassett suggested a party for the rest of the women's team to celebrate his self-acceptance. Salvadori liked the idea, but he received no warning when it would happen.

"I wanted him to know that we're really happy for him to be out," Hassett says. "He was really thankful to have so many of us show up and be so supportive."

One of the women tied a rainbow ribbon to the plastic bucket carrying the 1 1/4 gallons of ice cream. There were also two notes written on Post-its. One said, "Ben loves Jerry." The other said, "We love Cav." Salvadori saved the notes and keeps them in the bag he takes to practices and meets.

"It represented the end of my coming out to my friends at college," Salvadori says. "I kept them as a reminder of that period and the positives that came out of it and how all my fears were wrong. ... People still like me and they care about me and nothing is going to change that."

The support from his teammates continued this season. Salvadori, currently a junior academically and a redshirt sophomore athletically, feels free running for the first time as a member of the William & Mary Tribe.

"I want to be happy, and I finally realized that," Salvadori says.

He broke his personal record in the 8,000 meters during the fall cross country season then opened the 2016 indoor track season with personal bests in the 3,000 and 5,000 meters.

"A happy runner is a successful runner, and that was one of the issues that was holding Cav back that is no longer in front of him anymore." says Chris Solinsky, the William & Mary distance running coach.

Salvadori's enjoying these new, genuine relationships with his teammates from the grand (winning the 2015 CAA cross country team title) to the minute (dancing to Kesha in the locker room).

"When I think of happy or hilarious moments in my life, my friends are always there," Salvadori says. "The really funny, even stupid stuff, those are the moments I enjoy the most.

"Those little moments where you're just driving around with your friends laughing so hard and your cheeks hurt from smiling so much, I wouldn't want to have a life without those moments."

Cavender Salvadori runs cross country and track and field for William & Mary, a Division I school and the second oldest college in America. Salvadori can be reached via email at wcsalvadori@gmail.com or on Instagram @Lavender_Salvadoli

Erik Hall is a member of the Track and Field Writers of American. He can be reached at hallerik7@gmail.com or on Twitter @HallErik.