I wake up and tendrils of flame dance on the horizon beyond my window. The sun is rising and I can feel its light on my cheeks and deep in my bones. The sky is fully scarlet as I stretch and eat my toast and drink my coffee.

As I lace up my trainers my blood tingles with excitement. Every time, without fail, I catch my breath when I see the gleaming white peaks that surround the place I get to train and live. After drills are finished my feet kiss the ground in a rhythmic fall. I can feel the wind swimming in my hair and stinging my bare legs.

I love to run. As I run, my friends, teammates and loved ones are often there in person, but they are always there in spirit, carrying me along and drafting the wind like Eliude Kipchogie’s world-class Pacers, carrying me past my own barriers.

I have had the privilege of spending three years of my collegiate eligibility with Division II powerhouse Western Colorado University and legendary head coach Jennifer Michael. When I came to Western as a freshman, my coaches had us make individual and team goals for the cross-country season.

I would be a redshirt freshman that year and would focus on adapting to collegiate running and my studies. That being said, it was one of my goals to be fast enough to compete on the varsity squad that year. My other two goals were to earn straight A’s (I want to go to Stanford Law School) and come out to my team as gay.

Growing up, I have had a unique journey with my family members. In different ways, each one of them has grown to be a confidant and cheerleader. It is this undying support that has helped me achieve many of the things I am proud of today. I have so much appreciation for the way my mom, dad, brother and grandma have always supported me.

I had continued to tell myself I needed to be fast enough before I could come out to my team.

Later that year I finished the D2 southwest region open meet with a mark good enough to be Western’s 7th runner. I was on my way to acing my finals. I had an absolute blast running for Western that fall and felt like a stronger, fitter and faster version of myself.

However, internally I had continued to tell myself I needed to be fast enough before I could come out to my team. I felt like first I needed to be invincible. Like I needed to earn the right to be gay and an athlete. Like I had to earn the right to be one of the boys.

After outdoor track had commenced, I came out to my team in the locker room after a team meeting. I felt really accepted in that moment. All of my teammates clapped for me. When I ran at Western, I felt free and joyful and successful. I relished the high alpine air and brutal workouts with friends. I will always value the patience, faith, skills and support my coaches Jennifer Michael, Shane Nicksic and Craig Hunt gave me as I grew toward my potential as a runner at Western.

As my time at Western continued I became more lonely. Some days and moments I felt like I was a part of the team and one of the boys. Other days and moments I could not have felt further away. This is difficult for me to share because I still wonder at times if it is all in my head. It’s also difficult because I will never really know why I felt so isolated.

That’s the problem with exclusion — it gets in your head and you think there is something wrong with you. But the truth is you don’t need to guess when you are accepted. When you are, it’s clear, you can feel it all around you.

Unfortunately, homophobic, transphobic, and sexist attitudes — whether in jest or said seriously — circulated often enough to create an air of exclusion. These things were often not directed toward me but they were negative. Sometimes I felt like I had to fight hard to be seen for who I am.

Nicholas Turco with skater Adam Rippon at Rippon’s book signing in Boulder, Colo.

I don’t enjoy sharing this part of my story. In particular, because I do not want to discredit my amazing coaches or all the wonderful friends and teammates who were there for me at Western. I don’t want to discredit that at times like during the 2018 championship cross- country season that I felt accepted and embraced, and those times rally helped me perform well.

I am choosing to share the harder parts to highlight the following message. In college your team is really like your second family. You live, train, travel and eat together most of every day. I know how much power comes from the full acceptance and support of a family. I would argue that the full acceptance and love of your team and peers give you the same power to become fully actualized as a person and as an athlete performing at a high level.

Cross-country is the ultimate team sport. It is hard to win a title with only a standout runner. It takes a tightly knit pack of people who trust each other and are willing to work together with humility and confidence to win. I had such an experience in my last cross-country season at Western.

Our men in 2018 secured a third-place podium finish at the National Cross-Country Meet. On this day I knew I belonged and I knew I had what it took. I had worked all season on telling myself that. I worked with my amazing counselor by visualizing my best races and making them my reality. It’s OK to be tender and soft and open. This is a kind of strength that may get you further than you ever know.

On that muddy, snowy, rainy and epic day I placed 42nd and scored as our fourth runner. It was my first national meet. I was filled with joy, pride and a bit of disbelief.

However, a part of me felt like I did not make it far enough yet to be a role model or share my story. It was like I was five seconds and two spots away from earning my right to be proud.

I have waited a long time since I came out to my college team as a freshman to share my story with Outsports. I remember reading a recent Outsports story by Jacob Grinwis and being struck my what he said about the timing of being ready to tell your story. I have caught myself thinking for a long time that if I wanted to be authentically me, I had to win first.

This, of course, is not the case, I remember my friend Josh Hoskinson who ran for Colorado School of Mines, telling me he thought visibility was important but that being a good runner did not legitimize your sexuality and that your sexuality did not legitimize your running. I have never forgotten his advice.

I am now studying at the University of Colorado at Boulder and training for my first marathon with Olympian and world-class coach Kathy Butler. Kathy coached me in middle school and I have so much gratitude for her eternal love and support as well as for where she is taking me as a coach. I am in a loving relationship with my boyfriend and I am surrounded by incredible teammates and friends. I have one more year of collegiate eligibility left and I hope to use it running for Colorado next year.

I have caught myself thinking many times that maybe if I can run for the best D1 schools in the nation, or maybe when I am an Olympian, I can be a role model and have no fear in being 100% authentic. The problem is that this kind of thinking tarnishes our lives and our dreams.

To paraphrase one of my biggest role models, Adam Rippon, what matters is how we treat one another and our bravery in sharing who we authentically are with the world.

As I began to speak more with my loved ones, I began to see this as the case more and more. I remember sitting on my deck with my boyfriend as he encouraged me that I am a role model now. I remember sitting at Salto’s coffee as my coach Kathy said the same.

I have no doubt I will get to represent my country in some form of long-distance running or that I will get to study at Stanford’s Supreme Court Law Clinic. The point is, I am good enough now.

The truth is we are all role models when we are living true to ourselves.

I am living my best life, pursuing my dreams and experiencing the best training of my life. The truth is we are all role models when we are living true to ourselves.

So maybe we don’t have something to prove. Maybe we have something to live. Maybe we are worth everything in the world just because we can breathe in and breathe out. Just because we can wake up in the morning and feel the sunlight on our skin or hear the rush of music in our ears in the twilight. It is not our job to teach people to accept us.

We work hard toward our dreams. I think it’s important not to put more into being arbitrarily acceptable than we put into the essence of our dreams. It’s never worth losing the joy. We are born acceptable.

Nicholas Turco, 21, is an undergraduate student in the School of Arts and Sciences in the Political Science Department at The University of Colorado at Boulder. He is a research assistant at Colorado’s Office of The Alternate Defense Counsel with future goals of studying neuroscience and law at Stanford Law School. He runs with Kathy Butler and (@runboulderac) and also hopes to run competitively in the marathon. He can be reached by email at ([email protected]) or on Instagram (@turco_nicholas).

Story editor: Jim Buzinski

If you are an out LGBTQ person in sports and want to tell your story, email Jim ([email protected]).