Mike Nelson came out as gay and grew into adulthood with the University of Iowa swimming and diving team, where he was a four-year letter winner from 2012-16.

When Nelson came out to his team as gay, the overwhelmingly positive reaction from teammates, coaches and administrators confirmed how special the team was to Nelson. Now, the decision by the school to cut the men’s and women’s swimming and diving team has “gutted” him and he is part of a Change.org petition to try and reverse the decision.

In announcing the decision to cut the programs after the 2020-21 season, the school’s president and athletic director cited budget deficits caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The cut would end a program that started in 1917 and is credited with inventing the butterfly stroke. It is the biggest school to cancel swimming and diving and a loss for LGBTQ athletes who are out at supportive programs all over the country.

Nelson, who lives in Seattle, wrote an open letter for Outsports on the University of Iowa’s decision:

As a four-year letter winner, 2015 NCAA championship alternate qualifier, 2012 and 2016 Olympic Trial qualifier, and Iowa’s Men’s Swim & Dive Jim Marshall award recipient, I was absolutely devastated upon hearing that the University of Iowa’s Athletic Department would, “discontinue four of our sports programs at the conclusion of the 2020-21 academic year: men’s gymnastics, men’s and women’s swimming and diving, and men’s tennis.”

Shocked. Appalled. Gutted. This was my immediate reaction. Why? Considering performance alone, the University of Iowa’s Swim and Dive team has been around for more than 100 years. It is the birthplace of the butterfly, the stroke that led Michael Phelps to become a household name. It has forged Olympians and Olympic medalists across several Games.

UIowa’s program molded countless NCAA participants, All-Americans and NCAA Champions. And, while we were training and competing year-round, we were still showing up in the classroom as some of the top contributors for the athletic department’s GPA. Beyond our dedication as student-athletes, we fostered a strong commitment to our local communities as reflected by our high number of volunteer hours recorded each year.

Personally? This is my home. For me. For past athletes. For present athletes. For what should be future athletes. As discussed in my Outports story, “My years of eligibility at Iowa entailed some unbelievable opportunities with people who I value on more intimate levels than I knew to be possible. In the core of my being, I know that I owe both internal and external successes to the support from my university and my team.”

Mike Nelson

I think what truly hurts me the most by this decision is that present and future swimmers and divers are losing a place that became a sanctuary when I came out during my college years.

I believe that it is still a rarity to find a home in athletics that is so genuinely supportive of its athletes, no matter their race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and so much more. Regardless of being an openly gay, cisgendered male, Iowa’s Swim & Dive teams welcomed me with open arms and unconditional support during a time when same-sex marriage was still illegal on the national level. Yes, a program located in the heart of Middle America loved and supported me. My coaches and teammates celebrated my performances inside and outside of the pool, while also applauding my relationships with other men and consoling me through heartbreak.

College is a critically formative time for young adults, especially athletes, as they prepare for careers outside of their sport, and how they share their identity. For example, regarding identity management in the workplace, or how people manage the degree to which a diversity characteristic is displayed while on the job, individuals may choose to hide or lessen certain diversity attributes (McFadden, 2015; Yoshino & Smith, 2013).

While the occurrence of covering, when individuals choose to lessen the prominence of a known attribute (e.g., appearance, affiliation, association; Yoshino & Smith, 2013), may vary within an organization, identity management is a strategy used by queer personnel to prevent potential adverse outcomes as a result of being known as a sexual minority in the workplace (McFadden, 2015).

Such negative outcomes that LGBTQ+ employees attempt to avoid may range from non-intentional stereotyping to intentional loss of pay or promotions. Additionally, strategically using identity management to mute or lessen one’s sexual minority status may cause a misalignment between one’s career-identity overlap due to an inability to be their true self while at work (Katz-Wise & Hyde, 2012; McFadden, 2015). When employees do not, or cannot, maintain a positive alignment between one’s self and one’s career, they can experience decreased job satisfaction and increased negative attitudes (McFadden, 2015).

Translation: Without the right support systems in place, just as UIowa Swim & Dive was for me, I am certain that society will miss out on the positive impact of some of its key members, due to no longer having the ability to develop in such a supportive environment. This is a problem that has the potential to cause devastating, invaluable consequences for the LGBTQ+ community and beyond.

Now, UIowa’s Athletic Director Gary Barta, President Bruce Harreld, and the Board of Regents have decided to take away a sanctuary that celebrates people for who they are outside of the gym and classroom.

As stated in one of the comments on our change petition, “Collegiate athletics is synonymous with the development of disciplined, well-rounded young adults. Cutting such a historic program would destroy opportunities for future youth and reduce university engagement of alumni. Athletics are more than just a profit center for the university. They are a place for students to belong, develop, thrive — deepening the connection to the mission of UIowa. A short-term ‘budget cut’ like this is anathema to the mission, and continued success, of the University of Iowa.”

In my coming out story, my closing statement referenced how our athletic department preaches, “Win. Graduate. Do it right.” What I failed to mention is that engraved on both sides of the ring gifted to us upon completion of our senior year as Hawkeye Student-Athletes, a ring I proudly wear, are some of the athletic department’s core values: Leadership. Achievement. Integrity.

It is truly a disappointment and a failure that in response to today’s tragic global events, Iowa’s athletic department nevertheless decides to cut a program that embodies these three values when they are sorely needed for our student-athletes to efficiently navigate through these crises.

We will not accept being the collateral damage of the University of Iowa’s Athletic Department’s irrational decisions. We are the heart and soul of college swimming, the birthplace of the butterfly, and a legacy that needs to continue well into the future for another 100 years.

With love and respect,

Mike Nelson, ABD, MA, Industrial-Organizational (I-O) Psychology

Mike Nelson is a 2016 graduate of the University of Iowa where he majored in Psychology as a member of the men’s swim team. He can be reached at [email protected]. (Instagram and Twitter: mr_nels).

Read Nelson’s coming out story