It’s been nearly five years since high school wrestling state champion Alec Donovan came out on Outsports. Since then, the NCAA’s first publicly gay wrestler has experienced a wide-range of triumphs and tribulations: he’s been redshirted, lost his scholarship, transferred colleges and served as an unofficial counselor for other struggling gay teens — just like him.
And now, on the eve of his last chance to qualify for Nationals and make All-American, Donovan, who majors in secondary education at Centenary University in rural Hackettstown, N.J., says he wants to dedicate the rest of his life to helping others. As a self-described “big believer in karma,” Donovan says it feels right to give back.
“The more good things you do, the more good things will happen to you,” Donovan told Outsports recently. “I’ve carried that to my own lifestyle. I know the struggles that I went through. Some of them were a lot greater than others, and just being able to help someone before they do anything stupid, just to come and reach out and talk to me, I feel like I’m always there to help out. I always enjoy being the person who others talk to, because I can sympathize with them. I can help them through a moment that they may be confused and not know what emotions are going on.”
Donovan has been at rock bottom before. As a freshman in high school, Donovan was planning to kill himself. He heard homophobic language his entire life, coming from his family members and classmates. Struggling with his sexual orientation, Donovan told his father he was gay in the heat of an unrelated argument. As NCAA Magazine reports in its extensive profile on Donovan, his father, Tom, told him he couldn’t tell anybody. Much like his son, Tom Donovan feared being publicly gay would create impenetrable obstacles. It was better to stay closeted.
In the months following the argument, Alec Donovan spent his time researching suicide and the reactions to it. Finally, at the end of his freshman wrestling season, Donovan reached out to a friend, Haley, for help. She convinced him to rip up his suicide note once and for all. Two years later, Donovan came out to his teammates on a road trip to Atlantic City. Much to his relief, they were nothing but supportive. Donovan thrived afterwards, becoming a state champion in his senior season. Ranked in the top 25 of high school wrestlers in his weight class in the nation, Donovan was a top college recruit.
Donovan’s announcement on Outsports was published in the middle of his recruiting trip with Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo. The commotion unfazed the wrestling team’s coaching staff. Donovan was offered a scholarship and told to be himself. Just like that, Donovan was set to begin his freshman year on the other side of the country, a nearly five-hour flight away from his hometown of Brick, N.J.
For an openly gay teenager coming into his own, going to college in the diverse haven of California — San Luis Obispo is halfway between LGBTQ meccas Los Angeles and San Francisco — seems like a dream come true. But Donovan encountered roadblocks at the idyllic West Coast school. On the mat, he was redshirted for his freshman season, and suffered a concussion in his final match. Off the mat, he encountered homophobia from select classmates, bringing back painful memories. During one incident, another student told Donovan he was “hanging out with his people too much.”
Donovan says he hopes that person has grown.
“I was like, ‘You wouldn’t say that to a black person,’” Donovan said. “It’s just out of context, and just not right. I’m sure he’s become more understanding as he now works in New York, right in the city. I’m hoping, and I believe, he has changed. I always try to find the good in people. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”
Following his freshman year, Donovan’s scholarship was rescinded. But it wound up being for the better. He transferred to Centenary University, a Division III school only a two-hour drive away from home. Donovan continued wrestling and started teaching at his old wrestling club, Shore Thing, where he decided he wanted to dedicate his life towards working with young people. Donovan credits Shore Thing’s coach, Vin Santaniello, for instilling those values in him.
Ever since coming out, Donovan wanted to be a leader in the community. That is why he decided to put his email address at the end of his original Outsports story, leading to dozens of closeted young athletes and teenagers messaging him. NCAA Magazine describes a harrowing phone call Donovan had one day with a high schooler who wanted to kill himself over his attraction to men, in which Donovan kept the teen on the phone for 35 excruciating minutes until medical helped arrived.
Earlier this year, Donovan took part in New Jersey Devils Pride Night, speaking alongside one of his most biggest mentors, high school athletic director and basketball coach Anthony Nicodemo. Donovan says spending time at Pride and LGBTQ-related events further intensifies his desire to work with kids.
“If they can’t relate to anybody at all, they can still talk to me,” he said. “I’ll find something to relate to.”
Donovan is currently winding down his wrestling career, gearing up for the upcoming Mideast Regionals, which will be held this weekend in Ithaca, N.Y. It is the last chance Donovan will receive to qualify for Nationals, and hopefully make All-American.
Throughout Donovan’s entire life, wrestling has served as his refuge. It’s how he channeled his anger as a closeted teenager, and granted him the platform to come out. For Donovan, it’s hard to imagine life without it.
“I kind of hate it, because I don’t want this sport to end,” he said. “I don’t think anybody ever wants this sport to end, even though midseason we’re all like, ‘I’m sick of this sport.’ You can say that all you want, but you really just love the sport, and it doesn’t matter what you put your body through. This sport has been part of your life, and now coming into the last couple weeks of my competing career, life is starting to become more of a reality.”
Fortunately, largely thanks to the wrestling brotherhood, Donovan’s next chapter is taking shape.