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He’s gay, a Coast Guard officer and a rower with Olympic dreams

John Olbrys discovered his sports passion on the water and his career in the Coast Guard, and after coming out has found it progressively easier to be himself.

John Olbrys
John Olbrys discovered rowing by accident and became immediately hooked.

I came out much in the same way as I became a rower and a cadet at the Coast Guard Academy: clumsily falling into it then making the most out of it.

As a freshman in high school in Arlington, Virginia, some friends from Wakefield’s Model United Nations club told me I should join them for a crew team meeting. I had no idea what they were talking about, but I thought I’d tag along for fun.

We met in a small windowless classroom where our future coaches asked us to raise our hand if any of us had ever rowed before. I asked “does kayaking count?” to which he said it was close enough. As soon as I got on the water, I was hooked. It was the greatest thing I had ever done.

Crew became a permanent fixture in my life, an obsession. It didn’t become a part of who I am, as much as it informed a lot of the values I find important: clear and frequent communication, teamwork, sharing and organization.

Through rowing, I also learned about the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in the fall of 2005. I applied and was accepted to attend the Academy Introductory Mission (AIM) that following summer. AIM is a rigorous, week-long, lived experience at the school in New London, Connecticut, that exposes high schoolers to what cadet life is like.

At the time, I don’t think I’d ever been under so much stress in my life. We ran everywhere. The orders shouted at us never ended. The constant chaos pushed my company of AIMsters to work as a team to overcome the challenges that our cadet “cadre” leadership threw at us. To make matters worse for me: my unspiked-but-blue-dyed 6-inch Mohawk didn’t help me blend into the crowd.

John Olbrys is a commissioned officer in the Coast Guard.
John Olbrys is a commissioned officer in the Coast Guard.
William Waybourn

The calm in the relentless hurricane of the AIM experience was found for an hour each day down at Coast Guard Academy’s boathouse on the edge of the Thames River (not pronounced like the river in London).

Everything about the experience was intimidating, aside from the calm familiarity of the rowing shells and the ergs. One thing was certain though: I wanted to be a part of this institution and the life-saving service for which it developed commissioned military officers.

There was one problem though: I’m gay and I’ve known that since I was very young (maybe around 10). Growing up, it felt like a secret I had to keep all to myself, stealing naughty glimpses of men’s underwear packaging at department stores and logging onto the internet while my parents were out of the house to look at pictures of mostly naked (then, later, fully naked) male bodies.

Though my mom frequently reminded me that she would love me no matter who I felt attracted to, I felt like I couldn’t tell her because everyone in school pointed out how wrong being gay was. I learned how to sneak around, how to cover my tracks and grew to enjoy the rush of the lie. The lie permeated my life as a cadet, where discovery of my sexuality would lead to my ejection from the school under the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy.

A lot of the friendships I formed felt superficial. I’d lie to my classmates about what I did during the weekend, what girl I thought was attractive and why (leading me to bring more than a few to our mandatory formal events under false pretenses), and stress out about them finding me watching illicit adult videos on the school’s network.

John Olbrys with boyfriend Dave Payne at the Coast Guard ball.
John Olbrys, right, with boyfriend, Dave Payne, at the 2019 Coast Guard ball.
Lesnick Photo

For my entire life, up until shortly after my time as a cadet at the Coast Guard Academy, I lived with a frequent sense of impending doom. My world felt as if it would fall apart, my life unravel and things would go wrong if people found out what I really was. It was horrifying.

I only came out to a few people at school. I came out to Melissa and Dana in the same weekend in 2010, who actually came out to me first (we were “family,” a euphemism for being “related” as non-heterosexuals). A handful of cadets found out when Melissa put together a gay underground that preceded what is now CGA Spectrum, the first service academy Queer Affinity Group.

One of my closest friends, Nyrel, found out when she inadvertently discovered my porn stash on my computer, thought it was a joke, but then came to understand it was not. I came out to Mike, our Regimental Commander (the most senior-ranking cadet), at the end of our senior year.

Each new coming out was met with a lack of fanfare, confetti, feather boas, tears or rejection. They were only met with gratitude and understanding: these were people I knew and shared experiences with whom felt grateful that I trusted them.

After I commissioned as an officer in the Coast Guard and reported to my new ship, USCGC Gallatin, I dreaded coming out to each new person. I was comfortable at the Coast Guard Academy, but this was the real world. What would people think? How would they treat me? How would it make my life worse?

John Olbrys and boyfriend, Dave Payne.
John Olbrys and boyfriend, Dave Payne.
Damen Bowe

I worked hard to keep my work and social life separate but, since the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, I have found it progressively easy to just be myself. Coming out is a never-ending process.

I don’t present in an overly “gay” way, whatever that is, so it often comes as a surprise to colleagues and teammates when I come out to them in some casual way or another. This usually is just in the form of casually mentioning Dave, my boyfriend, or doing things like working with fellow queer Coast Guard officers to organize two LGBTQ+ celebration events at Coast Guard headquarters.

Outside of work, I’ve pursued a long and tumultuous rowing career, starting at the master’s level at first (shorter, faster 1,000-meter races) with Baltimore Rowing Club and working my way up to open level racing (2,000-meter middle distance sprints) with Potomac Boat Club.

I have raced at two USRowing National Team Trials regattas and have my sights set on Olympic Trials in February. Not only is my racing going well, but I was reelected club captain this year and organized a regatta for the second year in a row. Regardless of the club I’ve rowed for, my coaches, teammates, club leadership and competitors have offered nothing but support.

John Olbrys rowing
John Olbrys has raced at two USRowing National Team Trials regattas and has his sights set on Olympic Trials in February.

Through my passion for the sport (and social media), I’ve made friends with rowers all over the world. Some of them have even made time to get in a row together. Coming out certainly was not easy for the first few years I did it. It takes bravery and being brave can be awfully hard.

If, and hopefully when, you choose to come out, some people you’re close to may need time to process this new information about you, but know that they’ll all still love you for you. When I came out to close friends and family, they all processed this new information in different ways, from jubilation to apathy to crying and everything in between.

When it was all said and done, the scenarios I made up in my head, those ones where everyone I knew abandoned me and my world came crumbling down, never came to pass. The stress I built up in my head just seemed to melt away, each time leaving me just a little bit happier.

John Olbrys, 31, graduated from Wakefield High School in Arlington, Va., in 2007 and the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in 2011. He is a commissioned officer in the U.S. Coast Guard with more than nine years of service and serves within the Naval Engineering specialty. He is currently a competitive member of the Potomac Boat Club and the club’s elected captain. He also is an avid cyclist, runner and cook. He can be reached by email (john.olbrys@gmail.com) or Instagram (@0lbrys).

Story editor: Jim Buzinski

If you are an out LGBTQ person in sports and want to tell your story, email Jim (kandreeky@gmail.com)

Check out our archive of coming out stories.

If you’re an LGBTQ person in sports looking to connect with others in the community, head over to GO! Space to meet and interact with other LGBTQ athletes, or to Equality Coaching Alliance to find other coaches, administrators and other non-athletes in sports.

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