He knew it was coming.
In one of his psychology classes while still competing for Team USA, Paul Ruggeri had written a research paper about post-retirement depression in professional and elite athletes. He found that after years of defining their success through sports, retiring pro athletes often find the sudden void left by preparation and competition difficult to fill.
Months later, Ruggeri would be no exception.
Leading up to the selection of the United States’ 2016 men’s gymnastics Olympic team, Ruggeri was confident. Stepping off the mat at the Olympic Trials for the last time in St. Louis that June, he felt his three top-four event finishes, and his seventh standing in the all around, would land him in Rio as at least an alternate.
When the eight names were announced, “Paul Ruggeri” was not among them.
“It hurt that my entire life I wanted this, and I thought that I deserved it,” Ruggeri says on the latest episode of my Five Rings To Rule Them All podcast. While the disappointment still stings, it’s what happened in the days, weeks and months after that has lingered for years.
“There was truly nobody there to catch me when I fell. I was completely by myself. I didn’t know what to do with myself.”
For much of the last four years since ending his competition career, Ruggeri has felt lost in the woods of New York City, where he helped run a gymnastics school and lived with his husband.
Leaving St. Louis that hot, muggy day in June four years ago, Ruggeri said he began to lose sight of who exactly he was and what kind of person he wanted to be.
“When I did not make the Olympics in 2016, I started making decisions very quickly, and I gave a lot of other people in my life control,” he says. “I kind of departed from who Paul Ruggeri is.”
At one time the greatest showman — winning multiple gymnastics national titles, five Pan American Games medals and representing the United States at the World Championships — Ruggeri is now putting the last decade in the past, re-discovering his true self, and telling the world, “This is me.”
Re-discovering Paul Ruggeri
Ruggeri in 2020 is returning to his roots, having moved back to Syracuse, N.Y., where he was born and raised. Watching his marriage slip away, losing his job with the closing of his gymnastics school, and in the middle of a worldwide pandemic, it’s made all the sense in the world to again live near his family away from the big city.
“For me there was just so much going on that I truly needed some stability,” he says. “I am very close with my family. One of my values is definitely my family and being around them.”
He’s also returning to one of his original passions. While gymnastics took him in one direction for the first part of his adult life, healthcare has long been where he wanted to end up.
He knows that it was through gymnastics that he secured a scholarship to the Univ. of Illinois, where he earned a B.S. in molecular and cellular biology, as well as an M.B.A.
Yet now he’s in nursing school, headed for a third degree, and looking forward to applying his talents to helping other people in (hopefully) a post-pandemic world.
“With all the changes in my life I had lost who I was, and I had given up my personal identity. I was drowning on numerous levels. Being able to focus on nursing school ... I always wanted to be in health care.”
To be sure, he’s showcasing his other talents as well. Looking for a fresh start, earlier this year he scrapped his social-media presence entirely and started anew on Instagram and YouTube, where he shares tips and insights into his growing interest in bodybuilding, as well as climbing the peaks of the Adirondack Mountains.
Yet it’s the pursuit of a nursing career, as well as his family, that are now providing him with direction and stability.
“There’s no better place than being home to slow down and reflect and to identify who I am and who I want to be. I’m lucky and thankful to have a family who understands the changes I’m going through. .... I couldn’t imagine doing it any other place.”
‘Learning to embrace more of who I am’
It’s easy to understand how an athlete like Ruggeri may struggle with the end of his career. He was a superstar competing for the Univ. of Illinois, where he won multiple individual NCAA championships, as well as a team title. He was a member of the U.S. men’s national team from 2010 to 2016, named an alternate to three World Championship teams and finally representing Team USA at Worlds in 2015.
He put everything he had into aiming for a spot in the Olympics in both 2012 and 2016.
The pressure on an elite athlete can feel overwhelming.
So when I contacted him in 2014, asking if he’d like to talk about being gay, he just wasn’t ready. He couldn’t have been nicer, more kind or more interested in what we were doing at Outsports, but it just wasn’t his time.
People around him knew he was gay. It wasn’t the worst-kept secret in gymnastics, because it wasn’t a secret at all. Various posts across the internet speculated about him being gay, or outright claimed it.
Still, he simply wasn’t ready to talk about it.
“My belief when I was an athlete was that I never hid who I was from people. I was obviously gay, everybody knew me as such, and I didn’t go posting about it. It didn’t make me comfortable to do that.”
Looking back now, he appreciates that decision — as well he should.
Though as he shares on my podcast, a hint of regret about the then-state-of-affairs in elite sports surfaces. That’s not regret in how he felt, but how he was made to feel by a system of elite men’s sports that drives gay athletes to question whether they can live life openly in the public’s eye.
For someone on the edge of fulfilling his Olympic dreams — in a sport where his success was determined exclusively by judges — his choice then is understandable, accepted and appreciated.
While this is the first time he’s talking publicly in the media about being gay, he did post-retirement share news of his wedding, and he’s been using #gaypride regularly on Instagram.
“I wish I had a little bit more of a strong personality,” he now says. “But I’m getting there and I’m learning to embrace more of who I am.”
Hashtags aside, Ruggeri’s life on social media isn’t “Gay gay gay.” He’s simply living his life, a former elite athlete, nursing-school student, living in Upstate New York and enjoying time on the lake and in the mountains with his family.
He offers a perspective of being gay we simply don’t get a lot of, and one with which many gay men will identify.
The next decade
Ruggeri has learned a lot since retiring from gymnastics competition. As an elite athlete, he’d woken up every day for years with someone telling him what to eat, how to work out, when to go to bed, and everything in between. He was used to having other people take control of his life.
That led to him seeking that out in other people, he says, following other people’s lead, letting them take control of his life.
Now he feels like he’s back in control. While his time in the New York City area was eventful, he’s glad to be in a smaller town re-focusing on what he feels is important to the core of who he is.
“I wanted to get back to my core values of who I am as a person,” he says. For example: “I would love to have a family.”
He’s not ready to say that Upstate New York is his forever-place. He’s open to another guy coming along and sweeping him off his feet. But for now, being around family, focusing on his future as a nurse, and building a following for his burgeoning online bodybuilding presence is enough.
“It’s all about values, what you value and what every person values,” Ruggeri says. “I’m not necessarily convinced I’ll be here forever, but I definitely know my family is here. I also know... I’m lucky enough to have a family I can relate to and that does support me.
“And my family is one of my values, and one of the most important things in my life.”
You can listen to the conversation with Paul Ruggeri on the Megaphone player, or by visiting Apple podcasts for an easy browser player. Five Rings To Rule Them All is also available on Google Podcasts, Spotify and many more platforms. Just search for Outsports wherever you get your podcast.
If you’re LGBTQ and a current or former high school or college athlete, check out GO! Space. If you’re a professional or Olympic athlete, or you are a coach or sports administrator, Equality Coaching Alliance is for you.