It’s been nearly a decade since I was a full-time swimmer, but my favorite place to exist is still in those moments between breaths — hopefully every third —staring at the bottom of the pool, alone with only my thoughts, a stubborn song stuck in my head, and that awesome and otherwise rare sense that I am in complete control of what happens next.
The reality, as we all know, is that we are often not in control: not of what happens to us, not of who we are, not who we love, and certainly not who loves us back.
What I can tell you 10 years later that gets beyond merely “it gets better” is this: you will be amazed. You will be amazed about how much power you actually have in creating your own happiness, those daunting, unpredictable variables aside.
Swim team is an interesting place to come of age, let alone to come out — huddled with a bunch of almost naked guys in cramped lanes, locker rooms, showers, not to mention the amount of time being spent together on buses, on pool decks and everywhere in between.
I was privileged to grow up as a swimmer in a middle-class, northern New Jersey suburb where the vast majority of my teammates and classmates would ultimately react to me being openly gay with something between acceptance and full ally-ship. As many know in hindsight, or are learning now from the closet, this doesn’t make it any easier to realizing and living your truth.
I guess that’s part of the reason why I found myself one afternoon senior year of high school staring into the eyes of my swim teammate Steve’s dog, because looking at Steve directly would have made it impossible to say what I finally could almost actually say after months of convincing myself it wasn’t true: Steve, I have a crush on you.
For me, it was just months. First, finally *knowing* what I had been *feeling* actually meant: that I liked seeing other guys in Speedos, and not just because I wanted to race them in the pool. Then burying it, denying it, only to have it come back every day and in my dreams. Praying it wasn’t true, resolving that I would live my life as a straight man — even entertaining the absurd thought that I would allow myself to come out, but only as a whisper, on my death bed as a grandfather many years in the future.
I remember some tearful moments, literally asking God to not let me be gay. I was raised Catholic, told that marriage was between a man and a woman, and that being gay was a sin (somehow worse than other sins).
I remember all the moments throughout my childhood and teenage years when my mom would ask what I was doing upstairs in my room with a guy friend with the door closed or why I was dressing up in heels, playing with dolls, and being so into theater. “Is there something you want to tell us?”
Of course, there was, and yet there wasn’t something I wanted to tell them. When I was younger, I did not even know myself what being gay was, and as I got older and learned, I would never let myself fully grapple with it until senior year.
The hard part was those months between realizing it myself, vocalizing it to Steve, and ultimately telling everyone in my world who I thought should know (I literally had a list). I say “just” months, because for some it can be longer than months; it can be years, a whole chunk of their life, and some don’t make it “out” at all.
If some of the other guys I knew in high school had been confronted with the prospect of another guy having feelings for them, I honestly can only imagine how they would react, but my teammate embraced me. When I was barely ready to embrace myself, Steve smothered me with support and even helped me learn how to be OK with being gay.
When you’re in the pool, heart rate up, spinning your arms, and kicking with everything you have so your teammate can have an edge off the block in a relay, there is no room for doubt. There is no time to think about sex, sexuality, gender or identity. There is only time for, as my high school coach used to say, “just a little more.”
Champions in the pool and out do not waste a second of their time worrying about what others might think or merely accepting things as they are. Champions give a little more; they go above and beyond, embracing their teammates no matter what.
I am 30 years old now, but I only recently learned that “coming out” isn’t saying some words out loud about your sexual orientation or gender identity. It is something we in the LGBTQ community do every day.
I came out to Steve that day in February of senior year, but I spent months coming out again and again whether that meant talking about guys with Steve, telling my sister, telling my parents, or much later learning that internalized homophobia was something that would linger with me for almost a decade.
I went into college at Tufts as an openly gay man on the swim team, but I still had to “come out” when someone on the team asked on a night out, “Oh, are you going home with that girl?” When jokes about being gay or the word “gay” were thrown around as a slur synonymous with “stupid” or “silly,” I had to come out and say that it wasn’t right.
When I was dating another swimmer, “coming out” meant learning at a much later age than my straight teammates what it means to be in a relationship: learning about love, commitment, jealousy and also adapting to that unique part of gay romance of learning to balance competitiveness with desire.
I got nothing but support from my teammates and coaches on the Tufts Swimming and Diving Team. You probably couldn’t pick a better place to be a gay college swimmer. My fellow “Jumbos” were some of the most important champions in my life, and many of them are close friends to this day.
When I started swimming at Tufts, though, I was convinced I would never go much faster than 57 seconds in the 100-meter backstroke. By senior year, I was an All-American and finished out my career at nationals with a 50.79.
I still remember touching the wall and seeing those numbers on the board. I’m not saying this now to brag, but to underscore that a component of that mental barrier I made for myself was me not living my truth, and that level of improvement was only possible for me when I was open and honest with myself.
Looking back, it is easy to see now that “coming out” requires that we learn to love ourselves to the point where we would not choose a straight lifestyle even if we could. It means learning to not just accept who we are as LGBTQ, but embracing it and loving it, and being proud of it.
It’s easy for me to say now, as I get ready to marry the love of my life, Alec Vlahos, an OBGYN resident who was a collegiate runner at Muhlenberg College and supports me 100% in everything I do.
Coming out takes on a new meaning when you finally find someone who makes you cherish being gay. For me, it was the cute boy at a bar celebrating his birthday in downtown Manhattan nearly seven years ago. I didn’t know it then (or maybe I did?), but that boy was Alec: the kindest, smartest and sweetest man I know. We still “come out” together when we hold hands in a place we’ve never been or share a kiss goodbye at the airport.
Alec quickly became my favorite workout buddy, my favorite Netflix buddy, my favorite sous-chef (more often executive chef) and person. Falling in love with him has been the easiest thing ever to happen to me in my life.
The most amazing part of it: he loves me back. For all my faults, annoying habits and stupid mistakes, Alec shows me every day what it means to be appreciated. The happiest moment of my life so far, was when he said he wanted to spend the rest of his life with me as my husband.
I had almost finished writing this when I read a tweet that recently went viral in the LGBTQ community by Alexander Leon who perfectly encapsulated all of this much more succinctly than I do here.
The tweet said: “Queer people don’t grow up as ourselves, we grow up playing a version of ourselves that sacrifices authenticity to minimize humiliation & prejudice. The massive task of our adult lives is to unpick which parts of ourselves are truly us & which parts we’ve created to protect us.”
I posted the tweet on my Instagram story, and my high school teammate Steve reached out to tell me it brought him to tears. He said he couldn’t imagine how hard it must have been for me with the gay jokes and implications all those years ago. And then, Steve said something that took me completely off guard: he said he was sorry. Accountability should be what we expect in our allies, but I still was not ready for it.
Mike Del Moro, 30, is a 2011 graduate of Tufts University where he competed for the swimming and diving team. He was an NCAA Division III qualifier in the 100 backstroke and 400 medley relay and an honorable mention All-American by the College Swimming & Diving Coaches Association of America. Currently, he works as a booking producer for MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” and hopes to further his career in media and journalism. He is active on Twitter and Instagram and is engaged to marry his boyfriend of six years, Dr. Alec Vlahos, on May 16, 2020.
Story editor: Jim Buzinski
If you are an out LGBTQ person in sports and want to tell your story, email Jim (firstname.lastname@example.org)