Opening up to a fellow triathlete, a complete stranger, about my boyfriend as we both nervously awaited the start of Ironman Syracuse in June was the moment I decided I was comfortable enough about being gay to accept myself and tell the world.

I was standing on the beach of the Jamesville, N.Y., reservoir at Syracuse Ironman 70.3 and having trouble zipping my wetsuit. I spotted a young man who seemed just as nervous as myself about the race to come. I asked him to help me zip my wetsuit and we started to talk.

At first we talked about our goals for the race and then started to ask each other about what we do when not training for triathlons. I found out he was a waiter and a student like myself and he had come to the race with his girlfriend who was there to support him.

He asked if I had a girlfriend there to support me, and in that moment, I decided I was no longer going to lie to anyone.

I told him that my boyfriend, Kyle, was living in Boston for the summer and unfortunately wasn’t able to be at the race. The triathlete, whose name was Mike, proceeded to ask questions about Kyle. I happily told Mike about the first time I saw Kyle, what we enjoy doing together, and how we manage living over an hour apart.

After speaking for a while longer about our different training methods, Mike and I wished each other luck and waited for the cannon signaling the race to blow. In addition to the nervousness and excitement I was feeling about being a few seconds from starting an Ironman, I felt happy. I was happy that a total stranger was so accepting. That was the moment I decided that coming out was absolutely necessary. Any fears I had for the last seven years were gone.

Growing up in upstate New York, I can still remember the first time I heard the word gay. I was sitting at the kitchen table with a family member and some family friends. Someone had mentioned the word gay and my family member tried to cover my ears and shield me from this “dirty” word. It wasn’t until a few years after that I began to question my sexuality, but this experience has always stayed with me.

As I grew up, the word gay became more than “dirty” — it was an insult. On my high school swim team, guys would joke and make fun of each other all the time, more often than not involving the word gay. Hearing the word gay used in such vulgar ways frightened me. I was scared of people knowing that I was gay. I started to believed that gay people, including myself, were inferior and weaker. I believed that if people knew I was gay, they would think of me differently.

Having read the stories of other athletes through the years, I felt it was important to share my own with the world.

Both of my parents were successful athletes when they were younger. My father having won national championships in hockey and my mother’s name still on the record board that overlooked the pool I swam in every day. Being on a team and doing a sport was always a must in my family and I always striven to be the best. No matter how hard I tried, I felt that if I were out, my accomplishments wouldn’t matter. I was never going to be as good as my teammates because I was gay.

In high school, I was a two-time state championship qualifier, a team captain, and won the majority of my races by my senior year. I still never truly felt as though I was accepted on the team, though. I was keeping a part of myself from everyone because I was afraid of being thought of as different or less than. I was afraid of how my family would feel, and I was afraid that I would never be accepted for who I was.

I forced myself to keep my sexuality a secret. The locker room comments and general hallway comments made me furious with myself. Why did I have to be gay? I couldn’t accept myself for who I was. I didn’t want to be gay and never felt comfortable in my own skin. I didn’t want to keep my sexuality a secret from anyone, but how could I tell someone I was gay, when I wasn’t comfortable with myself.

It took a long time for me to start feeling comfortable with myself. Having lived in Europe for a brief period of time, I was able to experience a more liberal society. Being gay was still not completely accepted, but was more widely understood by the general population. This helped my shed some of my fears and start to feel more comfortable with myself.

With the end of high school nearing, I decided that telling a small group of friends would help me become more accepting of myself. The friends I told were ones I had known my entire life and offered me nothing but love and support. Their reactions and understanding attitudes were comforting in a time when I needed it most.

After high school I started to take distance running and triathlons more seriously. I have completed numerous half marathons, a full marathon, and an Ironman 70.3 over the past few years and through my traveling for these races and training, I was fortunate enough to meet many different people.

Hayden Reidy was a champion high school swimmer and now competes in triathlons.

One special person I met was Kyle. We first saw each other on a cold winter night in Burlington, Vermont. We spent the entire night talking to each other and from that day, we tried to spend as much time as possible together. We both had very busy schedules and to make time for each other we had to get into a rhythm.

Every Friday night would be phone-less date night at our favorite restaurant in Burlington. Most Mondays we would head to the mountain to ski, and Saturdays were for homework and movies. We even spend spring break together in Florida. Living more than an hour away from each other made it difficult to see each other more than one or two days a week, so when we did get to see each other we would always make the best use of our time.

I finally realized I was living my life for myself. The opinions of other people no longer mattered to me. I accepted myself for who I was. My sexuality is never going to change just because someone does not agree with me.

I find it funny that at one point in my life, I believed I could be inferior or weaker than someone else because I happened to be gay. The opinions of others have no effect on me or how I live my life. I am not inferior and I am not weaker but, I am proud to be who I am today and what I have accomplished.

Having read the stories of other athletes through the years, I felt it was important to share my own with the world. I hope my long journey from self-acceptance to coming out can provide some inspiration to other gay athletes around the country.

To the friends that have known my sexuality, I want to say thank you for always being there for me. I am a very happy person today because of your acceptance and love. Thank you for allowing me to be me and helping me grow and further accept myself.

I am excited to start living my life as an open individual and see where my athletic endeavors bring me.

Hayden Reidy, 19, is a sophomore at Plattsburgh State University and trains year round for distance running races and triathlons. You can find Hayden Reidy on Facebook or on Instagram @HaydenR23. He can also be reached by email at [email protected]

Story editor: Jim Buzinski