All I could think about for the last two years of high school was running for Oklahoma State.

Once I went on a visit in February 2014, I was hooked on how amazing the place was. The people, facilities, coaches, everything about OSU amazed me.

But there was one thing that I was freaking out about: How would I tell people I am gay?

Coming from Carlisle, England — a liberal place — and coming to the middle of Oklahoma made me very hesitant and scared of how people would react.

In England, I really didn’t have a coming out process. It was very natural. Everyone was accepting. Nobody even questioned it. I really didn’t have a lot of people to tell all at once like I would when I came to college.

I was scared when I came to Oklahoma. It was a completely different world from what I was used to at home. In England, I knew so many people who are out, and I was hoping on a Cowgirls team of more than 50 track athletes that there would be a least a couple of LGBTQ athletes, but this wasn’t the case.

I was just worried that it would change the way my teammates treated me or acted around me. It was already scary moving halfway across the world at 18 years old, but this was a big burden on me. And it was eating away at me.

My first semester was a struggle. I loved traveling with the team, going to new places with amazing teammates, but there was one big thing they didn’t know about me.

I felt like I was living a lie.

Lying to my closest friends made it feel like I was leading a double life. After the first semester at Oklahoma State, I didn’t think I would come back in the spring because I couldn’t find the courage to tell people.

Thankfully I did come back, and I am so happy I did. I decided to tell a fellow freshman runner, Molly Sugroue. I wrote her a massive text message about how I was feeling.

“‘Abbie, I don’t care who you love. I just want you to be happy, but also that’s fricking cool.’”

She’s a Nebraska native with a free-spirited mind, so I decided to tell her first. Her response will stay with me forever, “Abbie, I don’t care who you love. I just want you to be happy, but also that’s fricking cool.”

This gave me the courage to tell my other teammates. Their reactions were so enthusiastic and reassuring. Some cried with happiness that I told them, hugged me until I couldn’t breathe anymore.

I felt liberated.

It brought me closer to so many of my teammates, and it showed in our performance.

Abbie Hetherington has been on the academic All-Big 12 team for Oklahoma State.

We won the 2016 Big 12 cross-country team title for the first time ever and went on to finish seventh at the 2016 NCAA cross-country nationals. The next indoor season, I got my first individual Big 12 title in the 1,000 meters.

I don’t think I would be the athlete today if I was still scared about telling people that I am gay. It gave me so much confidence as a person that I was able to become a better athlete.

After telling my close friends at OSU, I wanted to tell my coach, Dave Smith, as I am very close with him. He was the one who gave me this opportunity to run for Oklahoma State.

So after an afternoon core session down in Gallagher Iba Arena, I told him I am gay and that I’ve told my teammates.

“Abbie, I’ve known you’re gay since before you got here,” he said. “Why would I care Hev!” (Hev is my nickname that my high school friends would call me, and also somehow Dave calls me.)

He gave me a big hug and told me to go get my cross training in — typical coach.

His reaction made me so happy. Yeah, why should people care what my sexual orientation is? He made me realize that no one cares if I am gay. It’s only me who cared. He is such an open-minded coach. You can tell he loves his diverse team from all over the world, and that’s what makes OSU such a special place.

“I’ve never heard any negative reaction to me coming out.”

Now, pretty much anyone who knows me knows my sexual orientation. I’ve never heard any negative reaction to me coming out. Many people at Oklahoma State are some of the most opened-minded people I have ever met.

Having a diverse team at OSU from all over the world is something that not many people get to experience, and I feel very lucky. Before I came out, I could never have anticipated such a positive reaction from my teammates and coaches.

When I race now, I race with confidence in who I am as a person. I can tell my teammates are proud of me for coming out, and it means a lot to me that they accepted me for who I am.

Abbie Hetherington is a senior at Oklahoma State University, where she is a member of the track and cross-country teams. You can find her on Instagram @__abbch__ or via email at [email protected].

Hat tip to Erik Hall.