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Gay walk-on college runner learns the power of acceptance

Ryan Signorino was nervous joining the track and cross country team as a novice runner and gay man, but he has never looked back.

Ryan Signorino runs for St. Bonaventure

Starting something new has never been difficult for me. I’m very impulsive and like taking risks, typically before thinking of the consequences involved.

Two moments in my life stand out as being times when I actually had to sit and think, “Is this something I want to do? Am I ready for this? Can I really do this?”

Both times I said yes. And both times taught me the importance of acceptance when beginning a new venture.

The first was coming out to my family.

I attended a Catholic, all-male high school in Erie, Pa., which wasn’t exactly an ideal environment for coming to grips with being gay. And while coming out seemed like a long, drawn-out and nerve-wracking process, it ultimately turned out fine. My family and friends accepted me, and I was glad to no longer have to hide a big part of myself.

After that, life was pretty normal. I left for St. Bonaventure University in western New York south of Buffalo. Despite being a religious institution, St. Bonaventure is a Franciscan university, employing the values of discovery, community and individual worth. I was open about my sexuality and got involved with the campus LGBTQIA+ club. It was midway through my first semester before I had to make another life-altering decision.

Although my high school was incredibly sports-oriented, I never got involved in athletics. However, one hobby I always enjoyed was running. At St. Bonaventure, I decided to join the Running Club, which met three times a week to run a few miles around campus.

I received an email one day from Bob MacFarlane, the St. Bonaventure cross country and track coach, asking me to meet with him. I set up a meeting, unsure what to expect.

I went in and was offered to join the team as a walk-on, despite my very limited running background. The school was adding a track team and needed additional athletes to field a large enough team.

That meeting on Oct. 5, 2015, would flip my college experience completely. No longer was a gay college student. I was now a gay college athlete.

I met some of my future teammates, but the beginnings were rocky and uncomfortable. I tend to be awkward and quiet when meeting new people, and I wasn’t sure how I would be accepted by the team, not only as a walk-on who knew next to nothing about running, but also as a gay teammate.

I remember feeling very uncomfortable asking questions about workouts and running terms, not wanting to do anything incorrectly but also not wanting to show my ignorance. Slowly I began to pick up on running vocabulary and feel more like I belonged.

Ryan Signorino joined the team as a walk-on.

I actually came out to most of my teammates at a team party. Our captain mentioned something to me about girls, and my response, without thinking as usual, was, “I’m actually not into girls.” I remember everyone getting quiet for a few seconds before he laughed and said it was completely fine.

Ever since that point, my teammates, coaches and even athletic department have been absolutely accepting of me.

It’s been three years since then, and through multiple injuries and tons of miles, I’ve finally staked my mark on the team and started getting recognition.

During track, I placed fifth in the 3,000 meters during a meet, scoring points for our team for the first time. Two of my teammates came up to me afterwards, one spinning me in the air, the other hugging me and calling me “the hardest worker on the team.”

I refuse to let my sexuality or my status as a walk-on hold me back, so hearing that my teammates were proud of me and appreciated my work ethic affirmed all the work I have put in.

I’ve often wondered where I would be in life if I never joined the cross country team. I think a lot about if I had run competitively in high school if I’d have been as comfortable coming out. I even wonder if I’d be at St. Bonaventure, a downright terrifying thought, as campus has become a second home to me.

Signorino has made fast friends on the team.

Earlier this year, I wrote a piece for our campus newspaper The Bona Venture about intersectionality and how athletics plays a role. I don’t describe myself as just gay or just an athlete. I’m a gay athlete and proud of it, always coloring a rainbow or writing “Be True” on my spikes.

Through both my coming out process and joining the cross country team, I’ve learned that acceptance is an incredibly important part of life. It begins with accepting yourself, such as coming to terms with one’s sexuality or believing in your athletic ability. If you are confident in yourself and your abilities, other people will take notice and be accepting as well.

I’ve found a home on my team. I’ve met my best friends, and I’m proud to call my teammates my family. And just like my parents and my sister accepted me, my cross country family has accepted me, despite my initial apprehensions about being a gay college athlete.

I’ll graduate in the spring with a degree in journalism and minors in psychology and sports management. I’m working on applying to graduate school at St. Bonaventure. One of the perks? I have another year of NCAA eligibility to use, which means another year of running with my best friends.

Ryan Signorino is a senior at St. Bonaventure University. He is a journalism major with minors in psychology and sports management. He competes for St. Bonaventure’s cross country and track team. In addition, he is a Lead Student Ambassador, a Resident Assistant and a member of the Orientation Team. Ryan can be reached on Instagram, Twitter or via email at signorra15@bonaventure.edu.

Story editor: Jim Buzinski