Sept. 4, 2016.

This date was the culmination of years of insecurity, self-doubt and fear.

I had just started my junior year in high school. From an outsider’s perspective, my life seemed to be perfect. I had a loving and tightly knit family as well as an amazing group of friends. I attended one of the best schools in Missouri, John Burroughs. I continuously made straight A’s and had just received notice that I was a National Merit semifinalist.

It seemed as if I had everything going for me, everything figured out. But internally, I was a mess.

Ever since I was a young boy, I found it difficult to be confident in myself. As a closeted gay kid for 16 years, I had possessed many insecurities. I had absolutely no clue how to overcome this obstacle to being happy with my identity. No definite path to finding myself manifested itself.

My first idea to alleviate my insecurities was to feign my identity. Internally, I was deathly afraid of the consequences of coming out publicly. I feared that my friends and family would view me differently, and that I would be ridiculed for being my true self. Wearing a mask to conceal myself was my first attempt to quell the war that consumed me.

I made tremendous, but uncomfortable, efforts to dress and act just like the other boys in my grade. Although it ate away at me on the inside, I put every ounce of energy into being as inconspicuous as possible. I actively tried to convince myself that I was not gay, and that all of my thoughts were invalid.

I hated every second of pretending to be someone else.

Needless to say, this plan of attack failed. I hated every second of pretending to be someone else, and the stress of suppressing my real voice eventually forced me to seek a different solution.

Instead of assimilating with a horde of generic high school boys, I decided that being alone was the best option. For months, I locked myself in my bedroom, initially feeling relieved that I no longer had to fake an identity to fit in.

I was finally able to be myself, even if it meant I was the only one who knew about it. However, this plan failed as well. Being isolated from all social interaction did not relieve my insecurities. Instead, it added to them, because I still felt that I was being forced to hide myself from the world.

So you’re probably wondering what the significance of Sept. 4, 2016, is.

Hunter Sigmund met Jake Bain in high school.

On that day, I was at a Labor Day party, surrounded by my classmates and closest friends. Jake was sitting on a rocky ledge by the pool. It was the first time that I had seen him outside of the classroom. We had been in several classes together since seventh grade, but our encounters were nothing out of the ordinary. We were friendly and would say hi to each other in passing, but nothing more than that.

Jake had come out earlier that summer. Although he had only told a few of his closest friends that he was gay, information travels quite quickly in high school. For a few months, Jake’s sexuality was a central feature of the latest gossip.

“Guys, you won’t believe what I heard. Did you know that Jake Bain is gay?!”

When I saw him sitting there, I felt an immediate urge to go over. He had been in my position before. He had dealt with countless insecurities, yet he had overcome them all with a bright smile on his face.

I knew that by talking to Jake, I would be taking my mask off. But for once in my life, I knew that I needed to allow myself to find some sort of comfort and relief. After years of failed attempts to alleviate my pain, I realized that I needed someone to confide in, someone who knows what living in the closet was like.

Indeed, I found myself talking to Jake for hours that night (and as of today, Jake and I have talked every day for two years). After years of trying to suppress my sexuality and the pain associated with my fear of coming out, I felt freed.

After Sept, 4, 2016, I knew that I needed to come out to everyone. Being my entire, unfiltered self for a night with Jake gave me a glimpse of the other side. The side that was filled with happiness, support and love. For the next month, I began to privately tell my friends and family about my sexuality, and I received nothing short of endless happiness, support and love.

It was highly unusual for our swim team to attract fans, much less the top football player and captain at the school.

I realize that there are many stigmas surrounding gay athletes, so coming out to my varsity swim and dive team seemed daunting. However, before I even had the chance to tell my teammates, many of them approached me and pulled me aside to assure me of their unconditional support.

I assume that they had noticed Jake hanging around the pool after school supporting me during my races, and they naturally put the pieces together. It was highly unusual for our swim team to attract fans, much less the top football player and captain at the school.

My coaches, specifically Leslie Kehr and Ashley Boesch, were two of the most influential and supportive people during my Burroughs career. Before coming out to Coach Kehr, I was very intimidated; she had deep ties to Westminster Academy in St. Louis, a Christian school that was extremely religious. When Jake played a football game against Westminster, numerous players shouted “stay down, faggot” to him on the field when he had been tackled.

However, when I finally gathered the courage to tell Coach Kehr, she assured me that she supported me 100%. I will forever be grateful for Coach Kehr. Her enthusiasm, mentorship and unconditional love shaped me into who I am today.

Hunter Sigmund with his John Burroughs swim team.

That swim season was the best season of my career, and I believe a lot of it had to do with my coming out. Before Sept. 4, 2016, I had used swimming as an escape route. I had treated swim practice as a way to manage my stress and relieve my internal chaos. Swimming was my chance to escape reality for a few hours.

I shattered all my personal records during my final swim season.

However, once I came out, I felt liberated. I no longer felt an unbearable burden on my back in the water, but instead felt free and untethered. With the support of my coaches, teammates and Jake, I shattered all my personal records during my final swim season. I qualified for the state championships in the 200 Medley Relay, 200 Free Relay and 400 Free Relay, and earned the title of “All-State Honorable Mention” in the 400 Free Relay after placing 14th in the state.

Today, I could not be prouder of both my identity and my journey. I love sharing my experiences with others, as I hope that by raising awareness of my own struggles, I will help others overcome theirs. Being gay is an inherent part of who I am, and I am unafraid to share this part of my identity.

Being on several varsity teams that accepted me undoubtedly shaped me into who I am today. I learned that even in athletics, there are people who will always have your back. At the University of North Carolina, I am considering joining the club swim team, and I am already a part of the club gymnastics team (one of my lifelong passions).

To all of those out there who are too afraid to come out, I understand. I was in your shoes. I know the pain you are in, and it is completely justified. I know what it is like to feel scared and lesser than everyone else.

But know that you are not a mistake because of who you love. Embrace your individuality, and know that there is an army of people who will unconditionally support you. Hang in there, and know that I, along with so many others, will stand with you no matter what.

Hunter Sigmund, 19, graduated from John Burroughs School in 2018 with Honors. He was captain of the varsity swim, dive and water polo teams, and earned All State Honorable Mention in 2017 for the 400 Free Relay. He now attends the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as a First Year where he plans to major in Chemistry. He is a native of St. Louis. He can be reached via email at [email protected] or on Instagram at @hunter.sigmund.

Story editor: Jim Buzinski