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Gay college swimmer forged his path in rural South Dakota

Josh Sorbe was the homecoming king and student body president at the University of South Dakota where he was able to reach his potential as an openly gay student-athlete.

Josh Sorbe
Josh Sorbe thrived at the University of South Dakota where his coach told him that he did not tolerate discrimination of any kind.

The best part about the water is the silence.

Swimming served as a source of clarity, where I could ignore the noise of a confusing world and focus on myself.

I’m a born and raised South Dakotan, a proud product of the Brookings School District from kindergarten through 12th grade. I love South Dakota. Often, rural Americans are stereotyped to be roadblocks to inclusion. The people are generally kind, caring and community minded. They fight for one another, but the stereotype of the intolerant few can manifest itself as the reality of the many in the minds of closeted LGBTQ+ rural Americans.

Growing up in rural America doesn’t naturally yield gay role models, so I just assumed I was different. I vividly remember isolating myself as a child, anxiously waiting near the classroom entrance while my peers enjoyed the playground. Waves of social anxiety and depression absorbed my life, but I never knew why I was sad. I would just gravitate towards two relieving outlets: studying and swimming. Now, I realize my affinity to them: neither required talking with others.

I became pretty good at both but found myself overwhelmingly unsatisfied. I felt like a fraud, projecting myself as a smart, well-rounded human knowing full well the authenticity was missing. It wasn’t until a locker-room harassment and aggressions during eighth grade led me to take action.

With the support of my parents, I reported the harassment to my teachers, who eventually sided with the perpetrating boys and neglected to impose any disciplinary action. In my mind, those five teachers at Mickelson Middle School cemented that I was different and not worthy. But they served as a turning point in my life: I realized I could coast through school and keep bending to expectations with disdain, or I could authentically pursue my own path.

Josh Sorbe
Josh Sorbe scored all-time Top 10 times in the swimming program at the University of South Dakota.

I chose the latter. I learned to accept my sexuality and persona as a strength of mine. I came out to my best friend Tyann and my family first, then the rest of the world after high school graduation. I felt relief and the first sense of true happiness in my life, and every facet of my life became more fulfilling — including athletics.

I was recruited to swim for the University of South Dakota Coyotes, and in my first individual meeting as an athlete with Coach Jason Mahowald I told him I was newly out. The first thing he told me was that he did not tolerate discrimination of any kind and that we were a family. A family that looked out for one another from that day on — especially the LGBT teammates and alumni — that I continue to hold onto after graduation.

I come from a family of swimmers. My younger brothers Kyle and Matthew both swim, and being the oldest sibling meant leaving my actual swim family for a new college program. Swimming with family was all I knew, and the Coyotes quickly became a source of comfort and encouragement. The Coyote quasi-family inspired me — whether they knew it or not — to be my best in the pool. An academic All-American with Top 10 times in program history, I improved tremendously as an athlete during my time at USD. I found my passion for swimming again.

Josh Sorbe, Mr. Dakota, with Ms. Dakota Macy Halverson
Josh Sorbe, Mr. Dakota, with Ms. Dakota Macy Halverson at the University of South Dakota’s homecoming.

Most importantly, my Coyote family inspired me to be improve as a human and be true to myself. I challenged myself and ran successfully for student body president, and later I had the honor of being named a Harry S. Truman Scholar — the premier graduate scholarship for public service — and become their development and communications officer as my first full-time job.

I still struggle in hyper-masculine situations — very prevalent in collegiate athletics — but I was armed with the knowledge that my experience is valid and a necessary perspective for athletics to truly progress to be a place for all. When I would see new athletes, I always remember my times of hardest struggles — knowing anyone can be in that period right now too.

The thing about my story is that I had access. I went to well-funded schools, had parents who loved me, experienced economic security, and didn’t encounter many discriminatory -isms our society has created and reinforces every day. I don’t know what my future holds, but all I know is that I will fight like hell for everyone to have the chance to thrive.

That’s my advice to younger, especially rural, LGBTQ+ athletes: Fight like hell, because your visibility matters.

Josh Sorbe, 23, graduated from the University of South Dakota in May. He served as a team captain for the NCAA Division 1 Coyotes his senior year, leading the men’s team to a second-place finish in the Summit League Conference. Named an academic All-American and a Harry S. Truman Scholar, he graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a B.A. in Economics and Political Science following a term as USD’s student body president. He now works in development and communications for the Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation in Washington, DC. He can be reached via email (josh.sorbe@gmail.com), Twitter or Instagram.

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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