When Matt Rittenhouse finally found the courage to come out to a fellow speed skater, it didn’t go quite as he’d hoped.
Rittenhouse was on a path to finally accepting that he was gay. Competing internationally for the United States at some of the highest levels of his sport, the native of Upstate New York was increasingly on a collision course between his Olympic dreams and living life openly as a gay man.
On this week’s episode of the Five Rings To Rule Them All podcast, Rittenhouse remembers the first person he came out to in his sport, a fellow skater from Russia with whom he had become friends. Because of their friendship, Rittenhouse thought the skater might have a positive reaction to hearing he was gay.
With just a little bit of liquid courage over a couple rounds of beer, Rittenhouse dropped a couple lines about possibly being gay to his fellow skater.
“I was totally met with this idea that being a homosexual is a pathology and it’s not natural,” Rittenhouse says. “I took a tiny step out of the closet and immediately jumped back in.”
The two never spoke about it again, continuing to train together. Yet it lingered with him for a while. It was better to focus on his skating than deal with more possible bad reactions.
The problem was, his skating eventually started declining. He was sinking into a depression of loneliness and secrecy that had crept onto the ice with him. Keeping his secret was supposed to help him focus on his skating, but now it was all falling apart.
So he sat down with a therapist, hired by US Speedskating, to talk about the possibility of being gay. When he said the words out loud, the response from the therapist was another punch to the gut.
“Well of course you are with a haircut like that,” the therapist said according to Rittenhouse, reinforcing not just stereotypes of gay men, but that Rittenhouse himself fit right into said stereotypes.
“I was dumbfounded and embarrassed that I went to this person and had a response like that,” Rittenhouse says.
While he was again pushed emotionally to keep his secret to himself and focus his life on competition, he realized more and more that the situation was untenable. He couldn’t live alone for the rest of his life, and his deepening depression was completely overtaking his ability to excel on the ice.
“I think in reality, looking back on the whole situation, I was doing more damage than good. I was not t dealing with this, it was making me depressed, it was making me lonely and anxious and all of that got built up. It did damage to my mental health. My depression got bad.”
So he started coming out to more and more people. As he did, he saw the brighter side of sports, the people who saw him as a whole person and accepted and loved him for who he was. Yet as people in the sport offered him acceptance, he found he was still unable to internally reconcile being a gay man in the sports macho, more-conservative atmosphere.
“I was totally accepted by most people within the sport, but there was something about me [internally] being able to kick the stigma in the sport that I didn’t want to deal with.”
So he hung up his skates, moved to New York City and followed another dream: living a new, open life as a gay man.
In the Big Apple he’s found friends, a career and a love for the Fire Island Pines, the iconic, secluded gay escape two hours east of Manhattan. Now he occasionally takes the ice for fun and exercise, preferring skis and the snow.
While he still wonders what could have happened if he stuck with the sport — he says the 2018 Winter Olympics, where he had once hoped to compete, were “tough to watch” — he is also in love with the life he’s built for himself off the ice.
“I’m living and thriving,” he said from Lake Tahoe as we ended our conversation, ready to hit the slopes. “I’m having the best time of my life.”
You can listen to the conversation with former US speed skater Matt Rittenhouse on the Five Rings To Rule Them All podcast on Megaphone, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Apple podcasts and many more platforms. Just search for Outsports wherever you get your podcast.
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You can follow Matt Rittenhouse on Instagram.