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Lesbian college swimmer was embraced in Wyoming despite her fears

Casey Duckworth was accepted as openly lesbian at the University of Wyoming and her swimming career thrived.

Casey Duckworth swam for the University of Wyoming.

My coming out story isn’t that exciting, except for the place where I was able to be myself as a competitive college swimmer. It’s not something that will put you on the edge of your seat or make you turn the page, and for that reason I consider myself lucky.

I was 17 and living in Orange County, Calif. Shortly after I had begun dating my first girlfriend, my mother and I were watching TV. I had changed the channel and with all seriousness my mom turned to me and asked, “Are you sure this is what you want?”

I had watched more than enough mindless television and the game show I had switched to was a welcome change, so I answered yes, a little unsure of why it mattered so much to her. She quickly made it clear that she was not talking about the TV, but in fact was asking me whether or not I was sure I wanted to be dating another woman. Again, I answered affirmatively, and we sat for a few moments while she digested the information, asking questions and pointing out difficulties. After a few moments she could tell my mind was made up, and I could tell she would do anything and everything to support me.

Many people are not as lucky as I was. Sometimes their parents or their friends refuse to accept who they are. Other times, in the realm of athletics, it’s their teammates who are unable to accept the seemingly new and foreign identity. That is why it is so important to me to share my story and to make myself available to athletes who may be struggling with their identity or their ability to be themselves.

Despite having completed my athletic participation over a year ago, I still think it’s important to document my experiences for the next person who might be struggling to make a choice. I find this particular calling even more important as I am writing this on National Coming Out day and the 20-year anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s murder in Wyoming.

I would be lying if I said I was completely comfortable with myself upon my commitment to swim for the University of Wyoming. Aside from the numerous people at my high school who were unable to find Wyoming on a map, and others still who needed confirmation that it was an actual state, I was aware of “The Laramie Project.” I eventually decided to watch the documentary shortly after signing my letter of intent. For the first time, I was confronted by a genuine fear about my sexuality and what it might mean during my time at Wyoming.

At the time, I had been dating someone for a few months, but had not come out to anyone other than a couple of close friends. Suddenly I was scared of a town that had felt like home on my recruiting trip and I was worried that I might not feel comfortable on the team and in the community itself. Millions of thoughts flooded my head and I wondered if I might have been better off picking a school in California, closer to home and more aligned with my beliefs and my goals.

Casey Duckworth with her mom, Kara Greene.

I wanted to pick something easier, something more comfortable rather than subjecting myself to unfamiliar and potentially dangerous territory. Every time the fears seemed like too much to bear, I remembered one of the things my mom had said as we sat on the couch in our living room, watching the show that I had been oh so sure of.

She had reminded me that nothing about my life moving forward would be easy, that I would have to work for things that were given to others, and that it would be much harder than I could understand in that moment. I decided to challenge myself to look at Wyoming as an opportunity to push myself, to be proud of who I was in an area where others might have contrary beliefs.

Realizing that it would be hard and choosing to continue down my path was the best thing I have ever done. I am so glad I didn’t let the fear control me, because challenging that fear helped me grow more than anything I had done before.

Despite the fact that my girlfriend was also on the UW swimming and diving team and several of the upperclassmen already knew about our relationship, I struggled with coming out to my class once I arrived in Laramie. In retrospect, it’s almost impossible that they didn’t know immediately, as I could count on both hands how many nights I spent in the dorms my freshman year (sorry mom).

Eventually, one of my teammates worked up the courage to ask me outright and I answered honestly and openly. There was this weird sense of relief immediately following that conversation. I had never hidden my sexuality, but I had never outwardly embraced it either. As time went on I grew more comfortable with myself and with my relationship, eventually able to joke about things with my teammates and my coaches.

When my girlfriend graduated, I was worried that the dynamic of the team might shift and I would again feel uncomfortable in my own skin. To the contrary, I met my best friend who helped push me outside of the identity bubble I had constructed to protect myself. He was my right-hand man and made it easy to feel comfortable and open with the entire team despite my girlfriend being in a different state.

Eventually I became a mentor to other teammates who were struggling with their sexuality and very quickly I stopped feeling alone on the team. I embraced my sexuality and used it to help other athletes feel at home in Laramie. Luckily, my positive experiences did not end on the pool deck and I found comfort and acceptance in the community as well.

During my time in Wyoming, I was able to attend multiple drag show fundraisers and the town hosted its very first pride celebration last summer. Although Laramie is a relatively small town in a very red state, I quickly found that the college town atmosphere had pushed them forward in light of their negative past.

Many people who have never ventured to Laramie only associate it with the terrible tragedy that occurred in 1998. Even though that cold night in October will be ingrained in the minds of so many for years to come, as a member of the LGBTQ community I rarely felt anything but acceptance during my five years in that town. Everyone has a story, and I’m so proud that the University of Wyoming is a part of mine.

No matter what your story is, whether it is happy, sad, difficult, powerful or any other emotion you can think of, I hope you will consider sharing it. You never know when someone will connect with your story when they need it the most.

The challenge I issued myself nearly six years ago has pushed me further than I ever believed possible. I am currently attending law school at UC Berkeley hoping to eventually advocate for the rights of LGBTQ individuals. I know that those five years in Laramie were invaluable to my overall success as an athlete, but more importantly as an individual.

I am thankful and grateful for those who came before me and who helped pave the way for forward progress and I hope that any athlete, past present or future, who competes in the sport they love will always be proud to be themselves.

Particularly, I hope that any athlete, no matter their race, ethnicity, or sexuality who competes for the University of Wyoming will always be proud. After all, the world needs more cowboys.

Casey Duckworth, 23, graduated from the University of Wyoming B.A. in 2016 and Masters in 2018 where she was a member of the swimming and diving team. She is now a student at Berkeley Law School at the University of California, Berkeley. She is a native of Orange County, Calif. Casey can be reached at casey_duckworth@yahoo.com or on Instagram @casssseyy.

Story editor: Jim Buzinski