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Lesbian college tennis coach finds her voice coming out during pandemic

Maria Lopez found strength to share her sexual identity spurred by the demands for racial justice and equality. 

Maria Lopez with one of her players.
Maria Lopez with one of her players.
Barry University

For Lesbian Visibility Week, we asked Maria Lopez to add some thoughts about the importance of this event as we share her coming out story once more:

“Lesbian Visibility Week is important to me and our community.

“It is a great opportunity to celebrate and encourage diversity, to challenge stereotypes and educate others, and to give strong lesbian role models a platform to be able to use their voice and visible for those who need our stories.”

ORIGINAL STORY:

Break. Open. Maria.

I played those words over and over in my head as I realized I needed to speak up, be vulnerable and let people in.

I found myself questioning who I was while the world was going through uncertainty, pain, changes and separation. I wanted to speak up about subjects that mattered, but how could I do that, while hiding my authentic self. I was holding on to the pain, shame, fear and embarrassment, and covering who I truly was.

That pain was familiar.

In my junior year of college at Barry University in South Florida our team made it to the finals of the NCAA Division II National Championship for the first time in school history. I was a two-time All-American my first two years and was en route to continued success as an upperclassman.

However, things did not really turn out that way. I struggled to win matches, confidence was at an ultimate low, and it was apparent that I was letting my team down while we had a real chance to compete for our first national championship.

During the finals, the coaches decided to take me out of the lineup in the most important match I could have ever played in college. I don’t blame them. I know they made the best decision for the team. But it left me with a big sense of regret and guilt for letting them and my teammates down.

The truth is, I was lost, without a sense of identity or belonging. I found myself questioning my choices, who I was and why I was all of a sudden attracted to women. I avoided friends and teammates and hard conversations. I said no to gatherings and isolated myself from reality. I parted ways from the sport that I love. I had mentally checked out, and pushed away the support from the people who had become my family. I look back at that year and I can feel the pain of hiding who I was, and who I was actually becoming.

Coaching was not something I pictured myself doing or dreamed about as a kid. Tennis was my life — I was obsessed about it. When my college career and dream of playing professional tennis was over I wanted to pack those dreams up and hang up the rackets for good.

Maria Lopez and the Barry University tennis team
Maria Lopez and the Barry University tennis team that won the 2014 national title when she was an assistant coach.
Barry Teams

That did not last long, and six months later I found myself back on the tennis court, trying to figure out what I was meant to do with my life. I landed my first coaching job working at a tennis academy; humbling, uncomfortable and oftentimes frustrating. I spent the next five years learning, being mentored and pouring my heart into my newfound passion, while I was learning to work with different age groups and skill levels. But I had some unfinished business to come back to.

I went back to the place where I discovered who I was meant to be. I volunteered for my alma mater, and in my first year as an assistant coach in 2011, Barry University won our first national championship. There was not a moment I did not think about what I thought I should have accomplished with my teammates back in 2003. I had to learn to let go of the pain to be able to turn it into love.

I realized there was nothing I wanted to do but to use coaching to inspire, challenge and empower others. To help guide them to learn and discover life skills and values that will let them have an experience they can look back to and have no regrets.

Championship rings have a price tag based on hard work, sweat, sacrifices and a bit of luck. The value of helping young women understand and believe in how powerful, strong, smart, and resilient they are — on and off the court despite all of our differences — is priceless.

I went on to spend the next decade coaching at a few universities. I kept growing as a person and as a coach, but there was something chasing me, always making me feel uncomfortable in my own skin. This feeling of hiding who I was because of the fear of who I thought others wanted me to be, and being exposed to others who would judge me for everything but my ability to coach.

I had chosen to share my sexuality with a few people who made me feel comfortable and safe. I convinced myself that was enough. But this past year the world challenged us to see things with different lenses. The fight for inclusion was bigger than me — it was time to be a team player for those who did not yet have a voice.

I have tried to do this before. After college graduation my parents found out about my sexuality. It was not how or when I had wanted, and it was definitely not the fairy-tale ending I was hoping for. The rejection and the words said that day sent me back into the closet.

I was born and raised in Venezuela, a place where homosexuality was not accepted and being machismo towards gays and lesbians was part of our culture. I wasn’t ready or comfortable to be myself and it left me with pain filled with a deep void, and a lack of acceptance for who I was.

Maria Lopez has been at Boise State since 2018.
Maria Lopez coaches up a doubles team.
Barry University

But just like life and sports, I knew that how you do something is how you do everything. So I leaned on and reminded myself that I was ready and prepared, that my experiences had taught me all I needed to find courage and be vulnerable. I knew I was ready to say those words out loud to everyone, but mostly for me.

I had been coaching at Boise State University for two years. I had helped recruit almost every player on the team, and I am proud of the culture we had built and the people in it. So on June 5 at 1:50 p.m., I sent out a text message that I had spent days drafting. I shared it with my team, and later shared it with the world on social media. I was able to say, in the proudest of ways, I am a lesbian. This was not the first time I had addressed my sexuality, but it was the first time I was proud of it, and the first time I felt accepted.

I cannot pretend to describe the freedom, the liberation, and the feeling of knowing that I can finally let go of all of the lies I have told myself as to why I couldn’t be honest, why I couldn’t be accepted. All the uncertainty has been replaced by joy, relief and support from those I care about. Their responses were filled with inspiration and admiration towards my truth and honesty.

This experience made me realize that one of the most liberating feelings is to speak about the pain you have carried inside for too long, and the shame that people close to you have made you feel. It also made me realize that there is no right or wrong time to break open, to let people in, and to share your story.

After all, the most honest version of myself is and will always be enough, loved, and accepted, as it always has. It took me a very long time to look in the mirror and love that my heart was made up of rainbow colors.

My story has had its ups and downs, twists and turns, and it has ultimately gifted me with the type of self-love that no one can take away. Whatever your story is and whatever pain you have held on to, for however long, forgive yourself. I promise you can never lose what will always be — you.

Maria Lopez, 38, is Associate Head Coach at Boise State University for women’s tennis. She can be reached by email at (lopezv.maria@gmail.com) or Twitter (@CoachMLopez).

Watch Lopez’s TikTok video for the Sports Equality Foundation.

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.