I was an addict. I was addicted to the active lifestyle, being involved in sports and being well-liked by my friends. I wanted to feel accepted by everyone.
Even though I was a four-sport athlete in high school — playing football, track & field, baseball and basketball — no amount of training was ever enough to carry the weight that I had bearing down on my shoulders.
Sports became my outlet in life. I relied heavily on sports’ ability to help me release my emotions, feelings, anger and fear.
I was always busy. I was in season year-round since the time I could walk. Sports were the norm in my family.
It wasn’t until a pulled hamstring during my senior high school track season that my reality had finally caught up to the scared young man running away from it.
I was a gay man growing up in conservative Nebraska.
The hamstring injury left me with time to myself, a concept I was not used to. From an early age, I knew that I was gay and that it was not the norm for everyone around me. Growing up, I had no gay role models, let alone a gay athlete to look up to or connect with.
In the span of just a few months, I became severely depressed. I was no longer the happy and care-free man that my friends and family had known me to be. I was fighting a battle that no one could see.
On a lonely, star-filled summer night, just four short years ago, I hit a bottom I was hoping I would never hit. The weight of not only being gay, but a gay athlete, something that was considered an anomaly, had finally caved in on me.
I was alone in my bathroom, silently sitting in the corner wielding a serrated kitchen knife. I was scared. I was lonely. In my head, I thought there was no one who could help me, that there was no one that I could turn to help me.
I cut myself three separate times on my left wrist. The scars are still visible to this day and will be forever, a permanent reminder of that dreadful and lonely night.
Thankfully, I survived.
I needed help and I needed it quick. I found it through my best friend and teammate. I will never forget his reaction on the night I finally said those two words aloud for the very first time, “I’m gay.”
No one had known that I was gay, and it came as a shock to him. But what he said after I told him are words that I carry with me forever.
“I will always support and love you,” he said, “no matter who or what you are.”
It was in that moment that I felt that weight come off my shoulders.
With the full support of my closest friends, I finally told my parents that I am gay. It was confusing at first. By coming out I had seemingly sent my parents on a roller-coaster ride that seemed to shatter their dreams for the man I was becoming.
But one thing was for certain, they loved me no matter what. It was an odd few months, but with the support and help of my two siblings, my parents became accustomed to the gay man that I am.
Our family has become closer since that day as I was able to finally be who I was around them and feel loved.
It was as if I was finally able to breathe again. I felt renewed, and I felt inspired.
Sports became my go-to again. I was still rehabbing from yet another hamstring injury, but I became more focused and determined to come back from this injury now that I had a clear mind.
I rehabbed in total for 18 months, 18 incredibly frustrating months of continual work in order to get back on the track.
After completing my first year of college and finally kicking my depression, after almost a year’s fight with the mental illness, I had decided to transfer schools in order to get a fresh start. I took this fresh start as an opportunity to finally be my true authentic self from the get go.
On my visit to Fort Hays State University, I had informed the track coach that I was gay. It didn’t matter to him. As a track and field athlete, I became the first openly gay athlete in the history of Fort Hays State University. Although my first year competing at Fort Hays had left me even more frustrated as my times had taken a dramatic drop, I was hungry to improve.
During my junior year, I was finally able to put it all together for a ninth-place finish at the outdoor MIAA conference meet in the 400-meter hurdles. Being able to compete again, I was competing for me, not trying to run away from the “monster” that was chasing me.
Track became my solace and happy place. I was extremely proud of what I had accomplished. No, I didn’t place at the conference meet, but I overcame 26 hamstring strains and competed well enough to earn a track scholarship.
My proudest accomplishment was finally being true to myself. I was an openly gay athlete. I became that person I was looking for growing up, an openly gay man who competes in sports and overcomes all of the obstacles thrown at him in his life. I wanted to become someone whom people can come to with questions, and I can proudly say that I have helped numerous people.
In rural western Kansas, I am openly gay and visible in a highly conservative state, an unlikely place for someone like me. But what I found here was nothing but acceptance and support.
I want to help anyone and everyone I can feel what I feel now.
Grahm Schneider is a senior at Fort Hays State University majoring in general studies and is on the men’s track & field team. You can find him on Facebook or on Instagram @grahm_fs. You can also email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.