I have never been prouder of myself than I was in my freshman year at St. Bonaventure University last year, both athletically and mentally.
After coming out as gay in my senior year in high school, I was now in a new place, with new people, doing the thing that I love — diving. Standing on the pool deck with my teammates was a highlight because of all the laughs and jokes that we made.
The 16-year-old me would have never thought that I would be surrounded by so many accepting, genuine people who cared for me and who I really was. Being able to open up about guys and talk to my teammates about classical “guy problems” may seem like something that is stupid, but in reality, I adore having those chats with the other divers because just a few years ago I was scared to even think about having guys in my life.
Having these people in my life really helped me when it came to diving itself. In every meet, there was an endless amount of cheering from the other divers and that feeling of being loved is next to none. During the Atlantic 10 championships in Geneva, Ohio, I was really overwhelmed by how supportive everyone was of me when I placed fourth in the 3-meter. There is no way I could have done that if the people on my team were not as supportive as they are.
I have come a long way, as my sexuality has always been a touchy topic to talk about.
Growing up, I always watched how I spoke, what I said, and how my body portrayed information to other people. I took all of these precautions in hopes that I would not come across as gay.
After coming out to my teammates at St. Bonaventure, along with friends and family, the sense of relief is unfathomable. I am starting to live the life that I have envisioned and dreamed of for so long, and there is no feeling that compares to it.
Growing up in North Carolina, I played soccer, baseball, gymnastics, trampoline and tumbling, which then channeled my love for diving. Having gymnastics was a great way to suppress my thoughts, even though I would receive comments like, “You do gymnastics, that means you’re gay!” and “You have to like men if you do that sport.”
One day, I found myself at my local pool messing around on the diving board, just doing fun jumps. The head coach came up to me and told me I had real potential as a diver.
Ecstatic, I grabbed my mom and ran back onto the pool deck, where the idea of joining the diving team was presented. I was so excited to start as I entered sixth grade because it was a sport where people would not label me as gay for participating in it. I fell in love with the sport immediately. I found the time where I was standing on the board amazing because it took all of my thoughts and put them on hold.
In the world of diving, there are individual events and synchronized events. I compete in individual events, but I sometimes practiced with a partner. I first practiced synchro in seventh grade, and my partner was openly gay. This was revolutionary for me because I saw how kindly my teammates treated him, and how normal it was to be different. I started to resent him because I could never come out and accept who I really was during that time.
Things got messy when I entered high school. I started at a huge high school in Cornelius, North Carolina, and blending in was easy. Within the next couple of months, I had a clear idea of who I was and what I wanted, but there was a never-ending battle within me about coming out.
I then transferred to a high school in a very conservative part of town, where “faggot” and “gay” were seen as punchlines to any joke. There were openly gay students at my school, and the things that people would say behind their back horrified me. Knowing this, I could never come out.
I made myself take a heavy course load, and practice was four hours a day, five days a week and between the homework and practice, I did not have much time to be alone with my thoughts. I just tried to spend the duration of high school in the shadows because I did not want to become a laughingstock just because of who I liked.
Junior year was both a mental high and low for me. I was in the recruiting process with college and I was excited to go meet new people and tour different campuses. I was really looking forward to seeing if the teams had LQBTQ+ students on them, and how the teammates treated them.
My first trip was to the University of Iowa, where there was an openly gay guy on the team. On my visit I was given so much hope because he was as happy as he could ever be, and did not worry about anyone saying anything, which was the opposite of my high school. As I visited more and more colleges, I saw the same thing happen, which gave me hope for the future.
My second trip was to my now current school, St. Bonaventure University in western New York. I was nervous about the culture because of the name of the school and its small size, but I was so happy to see that everyone here was accepting of gay athletes because they had a gay swimmer.
At the same time, I started seriously talking to my first guy ever. I had to keep it quiet although he was openly out. The sneaking around was very hard because I could not tell my dad that I was just going to see a guy. Since this was my first everything with a guy, I overthought a lot when it came to hanging out. I always had a million questions going around in my head.
All of these thoughts swallowed me, and I felt like I was drowning in them. After that “relationship” ended, I fell into the hole of trying to talk to as many guys as possible, seeking any type of validation, which in turn destroyed my self-worth.
I felt as if I was nothing and had nothing to offer and there was no hope of getting better. I went through a period where I was completely numb to everything. I would wake up, go to school, go to practice, come home to do homework and cry myself to sleep. To this day I am still recovering from that time period, but the progress I have made has been incredible.
In the summer of 2019, I went to my first Pride Event in Charlotte. The thought of hanging out with people within the community made me so excited but terrified me at the same time.
I met some guys through various dating apps, and they asked me to come to their apartment and celebrate the day with them. I brought one of my closest friends, Bria, and hoped for the best. To this day, it was the most fun I have ever had. I was so happy to be around people who would fully understand and accept me for who I am, and even celebrate the fact that I was gay. I was able to meet guys I consider close friends to this day, and I am super excited to attend more pride events, but this time being my true authentic self.
After committing to St. Bonaventure while a high school senior, I decided that it was time to come out.
I went on Instagram and posted a picture with a lyric from a song, “Lonely” where it went: “Love is blind and you know he just caught my eye.” I did not think that having the pronoun “he” would cause the commotion it did.
Within 30 minutes of posting the picture, I had around 80 Snapchats and 40 texts all regarding the caption and whether it was intentional, to which I replied yes to everything. I received nothing but love and positive praise.
Now that I came out online, I had to do it in person, which was terrifying. I told my dad that I was gay, and he said that he had known before I had a clue and was so happy to finally tell me.
Flashing forward to where I am today, I am 100% proud of who I am, and where I have come from. Though the path was very hard, confusing, and scary, it was all worth it.
I feel like I can finally breathe again, and I have a new grip on reality. There is no feeling like being able to live your truth, and not having to worry about what anyone is saying, especially the voices in your head that only seem to find the worst-case scenarios.
I have learned to take my time with these things, and never rush them, as well as to really take care of my mental health. I really hope that my story can open someone’s eyes and let them know that although there may seem like there is no end to the darkest part of your life, there is always going to be that light that is on the other side.
Surround yourself with the people who will help you get back on your feet and be your personal cheerleader for every step of the process.
Austin Campbell, 20, will be graduating from St. Bonaventure University in 2023. He is a member of the school’s swimming and diving team. He is studying Behavioral Neuroscience in hopes of going to dental school and becoming an orthodontist. He can be reached via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or on Instagram (austin_campbell0).
Story editor: Jim Buzinski
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