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Career-ending injury forced gay swimmer to begin coming out process

Swimmer Alec Reitzel grew up in the South and struggled with coming out until he realized he needed to be himself.

Alec Reitzel was a graduate assistant for the Lenoir-Rhyne University swim team.

“You’re not gay, you can’t be.”

I would say this repeatedly to myself, practically ingraining the phrase in my brain. I feared what my parents would think. How my church friends would react. What my teammates might say in the locker room when they thought I was not listening. Sometimes when you tell yourself something enough, even if it is a lie, you start to believe it.

My story started in Hickory, N.C. The town I grew up in, left for a quick semester of college and ended up coming back to. This is the same town where my swimming career began and ended. I went from high school swimming to becoming the first male signee for the Lenoir-Rhyne University men’s swimming team (the women’s team started a few years before).

I knew I was different before I could even fully read. What kind of different? That was to be determined.

As the years went by it became more and more apparent to me that I was gay. However, during those same years came a wave of “being gay is wrong” moments. The sound of disgust when a movie or television show would feature two males or two females kissing. An entire state ready to erupt at the thought of same sex marriage becoming legal.

I am not even sure if I should go down the rabbit hole where I talk about the years of torment from middle school through high school, a part of my life that I typically refer to as an extended version of “The Shining.” Then there were the weekly reminders that I was eternally doomed to burn in Hell if I “chose” to be gay, echoed by shouts of “Amen” every week in church.

Coming out was out of the question. I put on my best “straight” face, clothes and voice and carried on.

Through all of this, swimming was my outlet. It is a place where I found acceptance. Maybe it was because I was good at a young age, or maybe everyone was just afraid of my mom. Of course, there were always the looks and the laughs that mainly came from total strangers.

In my head I just assumed I had “I’m Gay” tattooed on my forehead and only straight people could see it. Even though I felt more comfortable when I was swimming in college, I still could not push open that closet door. We had left the Baptist church I grew up in, but our new church was not anymore open or accepting, at least when it came to homosexuality.

I pushed forward. I had girlfriends. I broke up with said girlfriends. I always used some excuse to deflect from the real reason I broke up with them. “It just wasn’t there,” “She was way too clingy,” and so on. While having girlfriends obviously was not ideal for a very confused gay dude, it definitely helped keep those who thought I was gay at bay. For this reason, I stayed in the closet.

By my senior year, I knew something had to change. I stopped trying to find girlfriends. “I just want to have fun senior year, no commitments,” I would tell friends and myself.

I was coming off a record year of swimming, National B Qualifying Times, Honorable Mention Academic All American and several school records set me up to cap off my swimming career in style. What I did not know was that my swimming career had already ended.

Years of overuse and most likely a little bit of cluelessness when it came to the weight room led me to tear ligaments in my lower back that would eventually require surgery.

A five-hour surgery and some titanium inserts were actually blessings in disguise. Not to say that any of that was pleasant, but the positive part was the three-plus months of recovery that followed. During this time, I experienced a wave of emotions. Fear of what was next now that swimming was officially over, fear of what to do post-graduation and of course, fear of the one thing I knew for sure: that I was gay.

I always thought about what it would be like to be gay. Be happy, move somewhere more blue, get married, adopt etc.

However, I never put much thought into the idea of actually coming out. I started to try to come out to a friend once, but I backtracked. Then I actually came out to close family and a few friends, but freaked out and started dating girls again, which led me to believe that I was bisexual.

My confusion was at an all-time high. It was not until after a summer living abroad in between years of graduate school that I truly figured out who I was. It had nothing to do with some fairy-tale European romance — it was simply due to me surrounding myself with people who loved and accepted me as I was. I tried coming out to them and most of the time their responses went something like this, “Duh, now where are we going to dinner?”

A dear friend of mine that I traveled with throughout Europe told me once, “No matter what kind of day you’re having, whenever you’re feeling the worst, look up; there will always be something beautiful.”

I was feeling down one night wondering if I could truly be myself once I returned home. I was walking back to my apartment late and decided to look up. I looked up to see the perfect backdrop of the moon hovering near the top of the Duomo in Florence, Italy, and in that moment, I knew who I was. I was proud of who I was and I was ready to be who I was always meant to be.

I was the graduate assistant during this time for Lenoir-Rhyne University. I was not sure how it would be because I was certain that I would be the only openly gay member of the faculty and staff.

Alec Reitzel, right, proposes to his fiance, Michael Griffin, in Chicago in December. He said yes.

I was afraid to tell my coach, I was afraid to tell my swimmers, many of whom were also friends due to me swimming on the team with them. I decided to be selective about who I told, and let the rest figure it out for themselves.

I decided to tell two of the girls who I knew would not care during a dryland workout. We were off to the side away from anyone in earshot and I said, “I have a date tonight.” They barely looked up and said, “Oh, what’s her name?” I smiled, responded, and said, “Well, HIS name is such and such.”

They both audibly squealed and immediately stopped working out. I was flooded with questions, hugs, and happiness. I had longed for these types of moments. Now, I was out. I was free.

As the weeks and months went by, more and more people “found out” that I was gay. I loved it. Something that I once wanted to take my own life over was now something that gave me confidence I never knew I could have.

The more people that found out, and the more “duh, we’ve always known” reactions that I experienced made me take a step back and wonder why it took me 23 years to finally become my truest self.

As I sit here and write this article four years on, I wonder why it took me so long to write this, being that it has been more than three years since I first wrote to Outsports. I can only think of one word: fear. It is scary coming out in this world. Not just as gay, but as yourself. Revealing whom you truly are to a world where everything is under a microscope, social media catches your every move and one where people will talk about you no matter what the circumstance is scary.

Even though deep down I knew my friends, family and swimmers most likely would not care, the fear was still there because of the “what ifs.” What if the world doesn’t like you?

Fast forward through everything and I sit here typing this article from the comfort of my home in Charleston, S.C. with the man whom I will soon marry. In today’s climate even with all of the strides that the LGBTQIA community has made, there is still so much work to be completed.

My hopes in writing this article and fully revealing to the world who Alec Reitzel is, is to possibly reach others like myself and let them know that everything is going to be okay. There is no right or wrong way to come out.

There is never going to be a perfect time or place. Just because you might be, 25 or 35 or whatever age, always remember that coming out is your thing, no one else’s. The world does not have to be such a scary place, and my goal is to do everything I can to make sure that one day, it won’t be.

Alec Reitzel, 27, graduated from Lenoir-Rhyne University with a Bachelors Degree in Management in 2013 and with a Masters in Business Administration in 2015. He was captain throughout his swimming career and earned Honorable Mention Academic All American after posting two National B Standard times his junior year in the 200- and 500-yard freestyle. He went on to become the first graduate assistant for both the men’s and women’s swimming teams at Lenoir-Rhyne University. He lives in Charleston, S.C. with his fiance Michael Griffin, and their dog, Moose. Alec can be reached at reitzelalec@gmail.com, on Instagram at @reitz_crackaaa or Facebook.

Story editor: Jim Buzinski