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Indiana University swimmer finds peace and a purpose after coming out

Thomas Vanderbrook struggled for years with his sexuality and felt like he was drowning. Opening up to those around him about being bisexual showed him a new path.

Thomas Vanderbrook
“As I am into my senior year at IU, I have a clear mind. I’ve never felt happier. I’ve never felt more confident. I’ve felt more like my true self,” Thomas Vanderbrook says.

Some days, I felt myself gasping for air even if my head was out of the water.

Since I constantly was looking at the bottom of pools for most of my life, it led to a lot of self-reflection, or rather, overthinking. “How will my parents react?” “How many friends would leave me?” “Are the coaches going to treat me any differently?”

From a young age, I was always inside my head. My gestures, the way I looked, how I spoke or walked — I was always worried about it. In middle school, because of my small torso and longer legs, my shorts looked a lot shorter than my peers’. I got made fun of for it. I wanted longer shorts to fit in with everyone else.

I went to an all-male, Catholic high school in the greater New Orleans area. I would hear “fag” and “that’s so gay” thrown around nonchalantly at me and others. Those words stuck. Some nights, I would cry myself to sleep. I wanted the bullying to stop. I realized I never wanted to tell anyone because I didn’t want it to be a burden. I held it in and used it as fuel when I participated in athletics.

Having the constant distraction of extracurricular sports, both in and out of school, helped me think about other things rather than my own developing sexuality. In high school, I was able to compete in swimming, soccer and track. It helped me since I loved being active. It also helped me stay out of my own mind.

It was the running across the field in soccer over and over that eased my mind.

It was the wind rushing past my face when running the 400 in track.

There would be days of club practice that flowed right into high school swimming practice. I spent close to five hours in the pool every day. It was the silence of being in the water that cleared my mind, telling myself that everything would be OK.

Just when I had gotten into the motion of things after my sophomore year of swimming, there was another mountain to climb. I had lost my grandmother three days before my junior year high school swimming state championship and I couldn’t think straight. I was numb. I held it in for the meet, mentally unfocused until I got onto the blocks.

All I could think about before diving into the cold water was her saying, “I really enjoyed it. I really did.” She would use her phrase whenever we took her out to dinner or shopping or watching sport events. She helped me learn to truly appreciate the smaller things in life.

Her words carried me through the meet. It helped me break a 21-year-old state record. It helped me live in the moment.

Thomas Vanderbrook during the 2020 Big Ten Championships.
Thomas Vanderbrook during the 2020 Big Ten Championships.
Katie Ducker / Indiana Athletics

Even when it came to high school swimming, I had a lot of self-doubt. Body dysmorphia played a big part. I was always tall and lanky, with seeming no muscle on my bones. I was ashamed of my body; it didn’t help being in a sport where you are primarily showing skin. Seeing the other swimmers and how they were built frustrated me. I wanted to look like them.

Today, in my senior year of college, I still sometimes feel the same way.

When I had first started college, I meshed in with the team culture at Indiana University. They were able to get to know me, but not fully. I wasn’t giving my true self to anyone. I was holding back on my personality, feelings, inspirations in life, all hidden behind a wall. Nobody ever saw me at my happiest. Eventually, it started to eat me up.

In the fall of my sophomore year, I signed up for a gender studies class. I remember sitting in class thinking everyone was staring at me. Judging me. I was inside my own head, overthinking everything. I wasn’t on any dating apps at the time. I never told anyone about my sexuality. Nobody knew, yet I felt like everyone did. I dropped the class within the second week.

Close to the end of my sophomore year, I started an internship with IU athletics (as an undergrad intern for social and digital media). One of the first things I learned from my boss, Lynnea Phillips, was being true to the brand of Indiana. From colors to typefaces, to the tone of a specific sport; you needed to be held accountable to the “brand guidelines.”

It made me realize how important it is to stick to your own brand. Every person has qualities that make them different from others. The things that make you you are something that nobody can take away.

Her saying about being on brand sparked something inside of me. For a month, I’d go to a nearby lake and think about what she said. I would sit in my hammock, watch the clouds go by, and think about all that I was hiding from others and the benefits of coming out to be 100% me.

Thomas Vanderbrook wrapped in a rainbow flag.
Thomas Vanderbrook is now out and proud.
Photo provided by Thomas Vanderbrook.

I started downloading dating apps that day. I found a teammate who I knew would accept me for who I am. It was Clark Carter. I remember reading his coming out story a few months before as it was presented through social media. I reached out to him and he helped me through how I was feeling.

I also came out to Mikey Calvillo and Logan Brown, two of my Hoosier teammates. They gave so much support to me as I was struggling to be accepting of myself. Whatever happened when I came out, it was known that they would all have my back and support me.

Others helped me out as well. I told my trans brother. He came out to me at that time. We talked about how things would go with our family. He helped me in every possible way, reassuring me that they would be way more accepting of sexualities than gender.

I’ve learned that many people come out to their close friends before their parents. I did the opposite. After my sophomore year had ended in 2019, I was allowed a week home before going back to train in Indiana.

On May 26, 2019, I told my parents. It happened in the car on the way to the airport. I had convinced myself that if they were not accepting, I would get on the plane and leave and figure what would happen next. If they were accepting, I would still get on the plane and leave.

“Can I tell y’all something?”

“Of course,” they said in unison.

Thomas Vanderbrook in a swim cap.
Thomas Vanderbrook found acceptance after coming out.
Craig Bisacre / Indiana Athletics

At this point, I was already bawling my eyes out. Unable to speak or see. I knew I needed this and it had to happen right now. I couldn’t go through hiding myself.

“I’m bisexual.”

Thankfully, they were accepting.

I still needed to tell all my friends and teammates. I held it in over the summer and even over my junior year and things went downhill. I struggled in swimming. I didn’t perform well. I didn’t sleep well. My grades were struggling. Coaches and teammates didn’t see me smiling or happy all the time. I wasn’t feeling good about myself.

Towards the end of my junior year, I tried to make NCAAs with a last-chance meet. I swam worse than I did a week before at the Big Ten championship. I was confused because I was training better than I did sophomore and freshman year. I knew it was from me holding in my sexuality, all the feelings bubbling up since I had let a crack open. Not only that but school, swimming, other things felt like they were pushing me down. I didn’t feel like myself. I was panicking and breaking down once I got into my bedroom at home. I needed to open up or else it would eat me alive.

On March 9, 2020, I hit a new low. I went silent, staying in my room not talking to anyone. My roommates didn’t hear from me all day; they had checked in on me but I didn’t answer. They knew I was struggling due to the previous day of competition, but nothing more. They even asked me questions while standing outside my door. I felt paralyzed. I was crying, asking myself why am I doing this, why am I here.

When I was able to calm down, I left for the same lake where I did my best thinking. Same spot and same trees that I always hung my hammock on. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was always loved. Teammates were calling or texting me. Same with my parents. I still couldn’t answer.

Thomas Vanderbrook in an Indiana University swimsuit.
Thomas Vanderbrook says coming out made him a stronger person.

I lost myself, or so I thought. I got into my car. There was a small bridge over the lake I needed to pass to make my way home. As I turned out of the parking lot, onto the bridge, I thought, “What if I just went into the lake?” I immediately started crying. I felt like a wreck. My mind was telling me to do it, but I didn’t.

I made it home safely. I never wanted to feel like that again. I needed to tell my friends and coaches.

I told my academic advisor, Angie Krilich, and my head coach, Ray Looze, the next day. I felt loved, something I felt like I was missing for a long time. It was just a start, but it built my confidence.

I had told one of my roommates the following day, Gary Kostbade, who is straight, and he accepted me with open arms. It was hard for me to talk. He told me how much he cared about me and that he was extremely scared of losing me. Other close friends and teammates were informed and I never felt more loved.

As time went on, they have seen how much happier I am. I’m not afraid of being who I am. Not afraid of loving whom I want to love. As I am into my senior year at IU, I have a clear mind. I’ve never felt happier. I’ve never felt more confident. I’ve felt more like my true self.

I didn’t regret anything I had done during my coming out journey. It might seem odd to say but I enjoyed it, I really did, because it made me a stronger person. It made me appreciate life a lot more. I was able to breathe again.

I’ve learned it’s important to take your time in your journey and take care of yourself, especially your mental health. Concealing one’s sexuality takes up a lot of effort and energy.

Keep in mind that the rewards of being true to yourself are endless. There are people inside and outside the LGBTQIA+s community who will love you for who you are. I hope my story widens people’s eyes in regards to not hiding who they are.

Even you’re in too deep and think you’re drowning, there’s always time to reach for someone who will teach you how to breathe again.

Thomas Vanderbrook, 22, will be graduating from Indiana University in 2021. He is a member of the school’s swimming and diving team and was named Academic All-Big Ten in 2020. He will also be competing in the Olympic Trials this summer. He works for the Mark Cuban Center for Sports Media and Technology at Indiana and is an undergraduate intern for Social/Digital Media for IU Athletics. You can reach him vanderbrookthomas@gmail.com, or Instagram: @Thomas_Vanderbrook or Twitter: @TVanderbrook

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.

f you are considering suicide, LGBTQ youth (ages 24 and younger) can reach the Trevor Project Lifeline at 1-866-488-7386. Adults can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 24 hours a day, and it’s available to people of all ages and identities. Trans or gender-nonconforming people can reach Trans Lifeline at 877-565-8860.

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