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Before coming out, gay college swimmer found comfort and confidence in the pool

‘Swimming helped me deal with emotions and feelings that I did not understand,’ he writes.

David Thibodeau is both a swimmer and a coach.

I could compete in front of thousands of people at swim meets but that didn’t make me feel brave. I still couldn’t confront myself about being gay.

One place where I felt comfortable was in the pool. There we were all just swimmers. It didn’t matter who you were. The water in the pool does not judge, and neither did my teammates.

When I swam it became a time when I could just think. I could do silly things with my friends without having to worry about what others would think, because we were all doing the same thing. These practices and time spent together provided a space and a time that I will cherish forever and will always be grateful to my teammates who never questioned my actions.

I felt completely safe with them. But I didn’t come out to them. I didn’t feel like I had to. They were cool with me being me. It wasn’t that I thought they would not accept me if I came out — I’m sure they would have. It was mostly me trying to accept myself. I felt so comfortable and so accepted by them that I could have told them anything and nothing would have changed. It was my confidence in myself that was the trouble.

Growing up in Canada, my mom was always trying to get me to play sports but I was indifferent. That all changed when I started swimming age 13. Because I started swimming so late, I first was swimming in a group with other kids two or three years younger than I was.

But I excelled and quickly moved up in groups, and within a year I was swimming with people in my grade or older. At first swimming was just something I did, it wasn’t part of who I was. That quickly changed as I became faster and started practicing and competing more. Soon it was eight practices a week.

Swimming was feeling welcome, a place that I could be myself without feeling judged. I wasn’t out with my swimming friends. I wasn’t out to anyone. I just felt that I could be myself. I could be David.

I moved in the middle of high school, 900 miles away and two provinces over. Going into 11th grade was not the optimal time to move. But I had no choice. Part of me wanted a fresh start, new friends with whom I could truly be myself. I didn’t come out but I did continue to swim.

Like many people, I first came out to my best friend who was also a teammate. I told her that I didn’t know if I liked girls and that there was a boy that I think I may like. I don’t know what made me feel like that was the right time. She was the only one I told until a year later.

I also started coaching during this time, and I’m still coaching seven years later. I started coaching because I loved swimming and I wanted to pass on that passion to others. Now I coach swimming because I still love the sport, but also because young athletes need to be able to see older athletes and their coaches who are like them.

My third year in college was very rough for me. It was the first year I was not competitively swimming. I still do not know why I quit swimming that year, but it also happened to be the year that I came out to most of my friends and family. It was also the year that I fell in love for the first time.

Over the year I was still coaching and the time that I spent in the swimming world still connected me back to the sport and gave me a safe space. One person who had a particular impact on my confidence on coming out was my fellow coach and teammate on the University of New Brunswick varsity swim team, who was also gay.

She was a very confident in herself. I didn’t come out to her at first, but seeing her everyday being so self-confident and happy, showed me that I could be happy too. She showed me that I could be who I was with the utmost confidence. Not having to hide who I was around another person made me feel safer.

Since coming out, I have more confidence in myself as a coach and as an athlete. For example, I did not feel comfortable going to the gym to do “dryland” training. But that changed after I came out. Despite there being bigger more “manly” guys, I can go to a gym and am comfortable in my own skin.

Since coming out I feel like I have more confidence in my ability to coach effectively. I feel that if someone asks me if I know what I’m doing I can without a doubt say yes. When I was hiding who I was to myself, I was less confident and less sure of my abilities.

Swimming helped me deal with emotions and feelings that I did not understand. It allowed me to clear my head and think for hours and hours. It was a mental break from having to hide who I was.

I could swim out my frustrations and feelings. I still have that connection as a coach. When I coach, I actively try to make the practice as safe and as inclusive as possible, because I know what the sport did for me, and I want everyone to be able to have a safe space that they feel as if they can be themselves.

David Thibodeau, 22, is 2018 graduate of Carleton University where he completed his Masters in Public Policy and Administration as a member of the men’s swim team. He completed his undergraduate degree at the University of New Brunswick. He went to Canada Games for Team New Brunswick and is a member of the senior provincial relay record holder in 4x50 medley long course. He can be reached at david.thibodeau@carleton.ca, twitter (@davidsthibodeau) or instagram (@david_thibodeau).