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Triathlons kept gay athlete sane during his coming out

‘Swimming, biking, running and lifting took away the anxiety caused by being in the closet,’ says Matthew Helmerichs.

Matthew Helmerichs
Matthew Helmerichs said his performances as a triathlete improved after he came out.

Growing up I always felt like I was looking for myself.

I was raised in the suburbs of Minnesota and attended Catholic schools from kindergarten through high school. From the start I found it hard to fit in. I was born in Paraguay, adopted and have ADHD and dyslexia, which heavily affected schoolwork.

Each of these traits came with a variety of questions from my peers including, “Why are you so tan?” or “Why do you always get extra help from teachers?” I never really had any issues with being asked these questions as they were a part of who I was. Around the age of 16, every now and then I would get asked a question that always caught me off guard. “Are you gay?”

Sometimes it was from a curious close friend or from someone trying to embarrass or make fun of me. Deep down I think I knew I was gay but I wasn’t ready to explore or embrace that part of myself. During high school I was just trying to figure out how to pass chemistry and whom to sit with at lunch.

I decided to keep being gay a secret. Attending a small high school limited my exposure to anything relating to the LGBT community.

There are only two times in my high school career I remember teachers talking about anything remotely gay. The first was when my psychology teacher said there was nothing wrong or weird with being gay while teaching a unit on human sexuality. The other was when my theology teacher said romantic relationships should be between a man and woman.

These opposing views caused me to push the thought of being gay into the back of my mind. My confusion was only heightened from being around high school guys dropping gay jokes left and right. The jokes were never directed toward me, but hearing them caused me to run away from coming out even more.

Matthew Helmerichs has three tips for those who want to come out.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, I clearly remember one of my peers sticking up for the LGBT community. A cross-country teammate had made a gay joke about another student. An upperclassmen immediately shut down the joke down saying we shouldn’t be joking about being gay as there’s nothing wrong with it. Even though I was closeted and years away from coming out it was comforting to hear someone sticking up for the LGBT community.

I continued running away from my sexuality until my sophomore year of college. On the surface everything should’ve been perfect. I was studying something I loved, had a great group of friends and was doing great racing triathlons. Deep down I was a mess.

I felt completely lost. I wanted to scream for help but didn’t really know how or whom to talk to. At this point I knew I was gay and that terrified me. One part of me was asking what would my family and friends think? The other part was thinking how do I even talk to a guy I like?

A lot of these questions had to do with me overthinking what being gay meant and not having anyone else in my life who was gay that I could talk to. The reality was I was lucky enough to have parents who supported the LGBT community and would love me no matter what my sexuality was.

I avoided confronting the issue by throwing myself into school and training. If I was putting all my energy into daily activities, I was too exhausted to get lost in my thoughts at night.

Triathlon kept me sane throughout my coming out process. Whenever I got lost in my head with a million questions I went and trained. Swimming, biking, running and lifting took away the anxiety caused by being in the closet.

As a competitive athlete I don’t let anything distract me when I’m training, I turn off the thoughts in my head and focus on performing my best. This ability to turn off my thoughts while training and racing allowed me to take a break from the thought of coming out.

Matthew Helmerichs crosses the finish line.

Eventually, I hit the breaking point of feeling alone. Training and schoolwork were no longer enough of a distraction. I decided to come out to my best friends, Nadia and London. They both gave me the biggest hug after telling them. I still had a long road ahead of me.

I spent about half a year slowly coming out to my closest friends and going on a couple of secret dates with guys here and there. During these secret dates I was never able to enjoy myself because I was always looking over my shoulder to see if anyone I knew was around and would figure out that I was gay.

After a while though I realized I wasn’t happy living a double life of being out with some people and in the closet with others. The thought of fully coming out was driving me crazy. I would tell myself I’d come out at the end of the semester, my birthday or after my race season but then the time would come and I would remain in the closet. The fear of the unknown was holding me back.

Then while lifeguarding one afternoon I thought to myself, I’m ready. There was nothing special or significant about the day, but there was this feeling in my gut that said it’s time. I had reached that point where I was enough for myself and didn’t care what anyone said or thought.

So that night before bed I typed a quick Facebook post and came out to everyone at once. After posting I immediately closed my laptop, turned off my phone and took a deep breath. I felt proud of myself for facing my fear of coming out.

Matthew Helmerichs came out via this Facebook post.

The morning after making my coming out post I turned on my phone and had notifications left and right sending love and support. After making the post there were two people left in my life I needed to come out to and that was my parents, since they weren’t on Facebook.

I was living in Des Moines, Iowa, that summer and my parents were in Minnesota so I wasn’t able to come out to them in person. I took a screenshot of my Facebook post and sent it to both of my parents with a quick text saying, “I don’t really know how to share this with you but I want you to know, love Matt.” It was a short message but I’ve always been one to just cut to the chase. They both responded saying they loved and supported me.

In the moments after coming out to my parents I realized I was free. I was done fighting with myself and had discovered who I was. I felt weightless. All the years of questions and thoughts in my head were gone.

In the weeks after coming out, I was at the peak of my triathlon season racing weekends back to back and traveling. I was training and performing at my best for pure enjoyment without trying to numb any confusion about figuring out who I was. It was the greatest feeling to finally be racing just to race.

Since coming out I have three things that have stuck with me from the experience.

  • You are enough. Never let fear or anyone take that away from you or make you think otherwise.
  • It’s OK to not be OK. Find someone to talk to. I wouldn’t be where I am if it weren’t for the people who love and support me.
  • Everyone’s story is different. I’m grateful for the support system I have but there is still so much to be done for the LGBTQ community. Use your voice to speak up or be there for those in need.

Matthew Helmerichs, 25, is triathlete and marathoner. He has been racing for 10 years and plans on racing his first Ironman and the Boston Marathon in 2021. He graduated from Drake university in 2017. He works at an Advertising Agency in Minneapolis. He can be reached on Instagram @matthewhelmerichs

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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