For the first two-and-a-half years at college, I felt distant to my team and hated going to team events in fear of someone asking me questions like, “Do you have a boyfriend?” or “I heard about you and a girl?”

Being an international athlete from Australia, I felt alone and confused when I realized my freshman year that I liked girls. With my Florida Gators track and cross-country teams, I felt like I had to be careful when around them, and be careful about what I posted, spoke about and who I hung out with, so they didn’t find out.

I wasn’t happy, felt guilty of who knows what and was in a dark place. I wasn’t running well, training well or even creating relationships with my teammates. I felt like I stuck out like a sore thumb.

If I got the courage to go to a team get-together, we would play games like ‘Hot Seat,” where anyone could ask you any question they wanted and you had to answer. This petrified me.

I had no idea what the girls, yet alone the guys, on my team thought about LGBTQ people, and what people might ask me. I would be sweating, had butterflies and was nervous just waiting for people to ask me questions.

There would always be sly comments and things said my way from guys, which made me feel ashamed and alone as I had nobody on my team who I could confide in, and my family back home didn’t know either. Safe to say, my first 18 months in America weren’t fun.

I eventually made friends with a group of five girls who were also LGBT, but weren’t athletes. I was adamant that if I was going to tell anyone, it wouldn’t be anyone on a sports team at Florida. This group of girls were my lifeline for months, they helped me grow to accept who I was and feel confident in what I felt.

This helped me feel a lot happier at home, and when doing things with them, but I still felt I was hiding a part of myself at training, around my team and at races. It was taking its toll on my mental health.

Caitlin McQuilkin-Bell, center, with her coach and Florida teammates.

Going into my third year we got a new coach, Chris Solinsky, and assistant coach, Megan Knoblock. On one run Megan randomly asked me if I had a boyfriend and I quickly said no. I had been dating my girlfriend, Julia Lester, a Gators soccer player, for a few months at that stage ( we are now coming up on three years).

I felt ashamed that I had lied to Megan and had a gut feeling I could trust her and should tell her. It was a feeling I had never felt with anyone else before. Once back from our run and in the training facility, I got the courage up to go up to her and tell her I lied and told her actually had a girlfriend. Her absolutely warm, excited and happy response lifted so much weight off my shoulders.

I felt so happy when she asked me to tell her about Julia and how we met. I felt I could show someone else the whole me and felt I could actually live my real, true life. Megan made me so happy when she told me she would come to Julia’s games and cheer with me.

Afterwards, I got the courage to tell one of the other girls on the team who I knew was also LGBTQ. I also messaged my mum in Australia and told her about Julia. I was so nervous I shut off my phone the rest of the afternoon, because I didn’t want to see her response.

Caitlin McQuilkin-Bell, left, with girlfriend Julia Lester, a Florida soccer player.

Eventually I got the courage to turn my phone back on and she was so happy for me, which made my confidence go up so much. I didn’t necessarily have to tell my teammates, but I started just talking about Julia more, or bringing Julia to places and posting pictures of her on social media. Sometimes it was easy, and sometimes it was still uncomfortable. My teammates didn’t care and were so supportive, and to this day they love Julia (maybe more than they love me!).

I found a great close friend group of other athletes who were also LGBTQ, an alliance that made me feel so much happier, safer and whole again.

The guys on my team too stopped with negative comments and left me alone, and were nice to Julia too when they saw her, which was my biggest worry. Once I was out to my team, it kind of got around to other teams and that’s when I found my “family.” I found a great close friend group of other athletes who were also LGBTQ, an alliance that made me feel so much happier, safer and whole again. I felt normal once more, which I hadn’t felt in a while.

After coming out I was so much closer with my team and happier at training, and my last two years of college were the best I had at UF.

Not only was I a better and happier athlete, but I was a better and happier person. I trained and raced the best I had in years and found my love for running again because I was at peace in my heart.

I contribute coming out a huge part as to how I was able to help my team make NCAAs. I was training and racing better than ever because I was happy, and I put my performances that year down to being mentally better. I truly wouldn’t have got through these past few years without my teammates, friends on other teams and my specific group of CrossFit friends.

Looking back, I thought everyone was homophobic. Not only this, I didn’t know being gay was an option, as I didn’t know any other LGBT people. I never cared about people who I knew were LGBT, but I wasn’t friends with them so I had no idea what the stigma or stereotype for gay people was, and had no one to talk with. So I resorted to the negatives and believed that it was taboo and that I was wrong for feeling these feelings.

If I could go back and tell my younger self something it would be this: It is OK to feel confused and to feel the things you are feeling. It is OK to be different. If everything was the same, what a boring world we would be in.

But also have some faith in the human race, your friends and teammates. You get gut feelings about whom you can and can’t trust, and follow your gut. There will be people who feel “safe” who you can tell. For me, that was my assistant coach. I hope that this can help other people who are afraid to come to friends and family see that there is light and love at the end of the tunnel.

You, and your feelings are ALWAYS valid. And love IS always love.

Caitlin McQuilkin-Bell

Caitlin McQuilkin-Bell, 22, graduated cum laude from University of Florida this year, and was a member of the track and cross country teams. She studied Family, Youth and Community Sciences with a minor in Health Promotion. Her senior year at UF culminated with her and the team making the NCAA cross-country championships for the first time since 2012. Since graduation, Caitlin has partnered up with Hoka Australia and is taking up a coaching position at a college back in Australia this summer. She can be reached on Instagram @caitlinmcquilkinbell or via email ( [email protected])

Story editor: Jim Buzinski

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

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.