Beckham. Rooney. Ronaldo. Messi. Pelé. All these professional soccer players have made names for themselves. All have left a mark on the sport and inspired a younger generation to strive for the best as athletes.
And, in 2013, another player inspired a generation: Robbie Rogers.
But Rogers didn’t motivate with just his athletic prowess, though he certainly had many fans. Rogers encouraged hope, strength, and pride by being one of the first professional players to come out as gay.
By doing so, Rogers also created a tiny spark inside of me. A dream — actually, a small glimpse at what I knew would become a reality. Among all the greats would stand LGBTQ+ athletes who weren’t judged for their sexuality, but for their athleticism.
My Young Adult novel “Running With Lions” is about Sebastian Hughes, a gifted soccer goalie in his senior year facing an unknown future after high school, trying to lead his multiethnic team to a winning season, and reconnecting with an ex-best friend who isn’t fond of Sebastian anymore. It all occurs at the Lions’ summer training ground, Camp Haven. But the last thing Sebastian has to worry about is whether anyone will accept his sexuality.
There’s one golden rule on the Lions — every player is important, no matter what their sexual orientation is. And it’s strictly enforced by Sebastian’s supportive coaches.
It’s a story of hope, friendship, healing old wounds, and being seen for one’s strength as an athlete rather than for whom they fall in love with. There’s humor and maybe a little bit of falling in love, but it’s about Sebastian’s journey with his teammates.
It’s about his coaches creating a safe place for him and other LGBTQ+ players. A place where Sebastian can be himself, no matter how goofy or oblivious or incredibly bad at flirting he may be. A place where he can be at the top of his game, gain respect, and lead others as a bisexual teen.
At the end of the day, should any person’s athletic ability be determined by their identity?
Not at Camp Haven. Not in this book.
While writing this book, I watched so many positives happen for the LGBTQ+ community. Marriage equality. Openly LGBTQ+ people elected to political office. Beautiful coming out stories. Unified fronts against discrimination. But I also read countless stories of LGBTQ+ teen athletes finding their safe place. Teens telling their story as out athletes.
I witnessed teens finding their own Camp Haven.
One very important reason I wrote “Running With Lions” was to reach LGBTQ+ teens, especially athletes. While there has been progress in the world when it comes to LGBTQ+ rights and acceptance, there is still a need for stories teens can relate to. Stories of triumph, unity, and stories where they can see themselves as the incredible athletes they are.
LGBTQ+ teens need to know they can be leaders. They can be the star player. Or they can simply be a great teammate.
Sebastian is in search of a path and self-acceptance, something that many LGBTQ+ teens face daily, including in the sports world. I wanted a book where they could see themselves represented. To create self-assurance, courage, and awareness. To give athletes the edge to compete, to know their athletic ability is not based upon sexuality — it’s an inner-strength.
Rogers is no longer alone in that list of inspiring athletes. He’s joined by young out soccer players everywhere. That little spark has expanded into a glowing star. Its radiating with courage, strength, and athletes free to be themselves. To know their teammates, coaches, teachers, and peers respect them. Appreciate them.
Have we reached the peak yet? No. Is there still progress to be made? Always. But it’s why I hope “Running With Lions” finds its way into more courageous teen athletes’ hearts.
My hope for this book is that young adults find that person they can relate to in the pages. Find the courage to compete hard and love themselves, too. To know their teammates or coaches or friends will accept them. To not only be the best athlete they are capable of being, but to be the best version of themselves — not for a trophy or a championship.
Julian Winters is an author and sensitivity reader who set his debut contemporary YA novel, “Running With Lions,” in the world of club soccer. He writes stories about empowering LGBTQ+ young adults, friendships, the beauty of diversity, facing adversity and love. He can be reached on Twitter or Instagram.
You can buy “Running With Lions” on Amazon.