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Triathlete excels after coming out as gay gives him confidence

"I have found that there is this symbiotic relationship between my confidence and success as an athlete and my confidence and acceptance of my identity as a gay man."

Jack Bristow at the Euros triathlon championship
Jack Bristow at the Euros triathlon championship

One of the things I regret is that I didn't accept that I was gay earlier. I went through school and my first year of university trying to be "normal" but it never worked out. Relationships with girls were short-lived and I was always the one to end them, coming up with feeble excuses rather than admit to myself that I wasn't attracted to them in that way.

With the benefit of hindsight there were quite a lot of clues I should have picked up on. I tended to be friendlier with good looking guys and I found myself longing for physical contact: bromantic hugs, knees pressed together when sitting in a circle with male friends. When the first "Transformers" film came out and all my friends kept going on about how "fit" Megan Fox was, I remember thinking to myself, "I don't get what all the fuss is about." Hindsight is a wonderful thing.

Coming out was the hardest thing I have ever done, in part because I had to accept it myself at the same time. At the start of second year at the University of Exeter in England, I had decided to act on the feelings I had been feeling but repressing since puberty and kissed another guy. In my head something clicked and I accepted that I was attracted to men but I was still scared.

Quite soon after that I told a couple of my housemates and my twin brother over the phone. I had read articles on Outsports about the distress keeping their sexuality a secret had caused people and I didn't want to go through that myself so I decided it was better to come out sooner rather than later. They were all accepting and my brother told me he had suspected it a little bit. A couple of weeks after that I sent a message to my two flatmates on Facebook asking them to pretend nothing happened, trying to take back my coming out. I was terrified that people would start treating me differently.

The turning point came in November of my second year in 2013. I had taken up triathlon when I joined university and had fallen in love with it. Most of my spare time was taken up with training and my closest friends were my teammates from the triathlon club. On a night out after a duathlon, I drunkenly came out to them in small groups at a time. Some of them were surprised, but I didn't have a single negative reaction. I was met only with love and acceptance. Knowing that my teammates supported me, despite all the negative things I had heard about the way gay people are treated in sports team, gave me the confidence to come out to more people.

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Being open about my sexuality gave me so much more self-confidence, the drive to think "why shouldn't I attempt that? Why couldn't I do that?" By accepting myself I became less susceptible to the doubts that other people had about my ability. I wanted to prove them wrong. The hours I was putting in training were starting to pay off and I was starting to get better results.

At the start of my third year I set my sights on qualifying for the 2016 European age group triathlon championships in Lisbon. I was also comfortable enough with my own sexuality that I wanted to do something at my university to raise awareness of the issues faced by LGBT people in sport. I decided to run for election to be Athletic Union President, the student sabbatical officer responsible for sport at the University of Exeter. Throughout my campaign I made a point of my identity as a gay man and once again did not receive a single negative reaction. In fact, I won the election despite being considered something of an outside chance. That same year I also secured a qualification slot for the Euros and won a triathlon for the first time. I went on to finish fourth in the 20-24 age group at the Euros.

I have found that there is this symbiotic relationship between my confidence and success as an athlete and my confidence and acceptance of my identity as a gay man. I have made no secret of my sexuality in my sporting pursuits as I feel I owe it to other athletes struggling with their own sexualities to be open about my own and to prove that not being heterosexual is no barrier to taking part in sport.

Over the last year, in my role as Athletic Union President, I have run a campaign at the University of Exeter called Come Out and Play, which aimed to highlight the issues faced by LGBT people in sport but also to assure people that there is actually widespread acceptance for LGBT people in sport at Exeter. My proudest moment was when Ashley, the captain of the table tennis club, told me that I had helped him become more accepting of his own sexuality.

Going back to my regret that I didn't realize I was gay sooner, I often try and think of what I would tell myself if I had the chance to go back in time. I think what I would say is that you should not be scared of being different. In school you want to try and fit in and be "normal" but I've found that people are a lot more accepting than you would think. Your friends love you for you, and them knowing you're gay doesn't change that.

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Coming out is a process that you start but never finish. You will always be coming out to people but it gets easier every time. When I first came out to my friends and teammates at 19 I had to be drunk to work up the courage to do so. By the time I was 21 and standing for election to be the Athletic Union President I was outing myself to the hundreds, if not thousands, of other students I spoke to on campus that week. Yes, coming out is scary and hard, but once you've done that the self-confidence it will give you makes all the other challenges look like a walk in the park.

Jack Bristow, 22, is a recent graduate in History and Politics from the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom. He is a triathlete who has competed for the Great Britain age group team in the Olympic distance. He can be reached via email at jackjohn94@hotmail.co.uk and on Twitter and Instagram.