Rowing is a painful and grueling sport and I’ve been through countless injuries and setbacks. However, it was nothing compared to my mental struggle during the process of figuring out my sexuality.
Most athletes find themselves getting lost in the love of their sport, becoming consumed with trying to be the best they can possibly be and using athletics as an outlet to cope with the stress of everyday life. That is exactly what got me addicted to sports and eventually rowing.
I figured out I was gay when I was about 11 or 12 years old growing up in Albany, N.Y. The thought of not being like the rest of my friends and teammates terrified me. As an athlete, I’m extremely competitive and will do whatever it takes to get faster and be better, on and off the water. This was the first time that I couldn’t change the outcome of the something I didn’t like about myself, and I had no idea how to cope with that.
When I started rowing in seventh grade, I was looking for a new outlet to try and distract myself and not think about the possibility of being gay. A coach recruited me saying I had potential to be a promising lightweight rower. I tried it out, fell in love with it and quit the other sports I was playing to focus all of my energy on rowing.
Fast-forward to freshman year of high school. I was still closeted, but my boat was performing extremely well. We were undefeated in the fall season, trained extremely hard during winter and were ready to take on the spring season with the New York State Rowing Championship in our sights. That day turned out to be one of the hardest days of my life.
In the time trials we put out the fastest time of the day and were so excited to race in the grand final later on to claim what was rightfully ours. On the way to the dock to head out to the start line we were silent and laser-focused on the goal we’ve been working so hard for.
To get to the start line we had to walk by many different team tents. Right before we got to the dock to launch, I heard a conversation start from one tent. I heard, “sup faggot,” to which his teammate responded with, “not much how ‘bout you, gay boy?” My heart instantly sank. I lost all focus and felt sick to my stomach.
Even though these guys weren’t talking to me directly, it almost felt like they were; seeing right through the secrets I was keeping from my friends, family, and others. The whole warm-up to the start line, and even once we were lined up in the blocks, I was thinking about my identity. Am I mentally strong enough to succeed in rowing? If I’m not a fast rower, or even a rower at all, who am I? Are my loved ones going to be mad at me for keeping this huge detail about myself from them?
As soon as the official said, “attention, go!” all of those thoughts went away and I was fully in race mode. We put up the best fight we possibly could, but we ended up falling the slightest bit short, placing second.
Afterward, I could not get the thought out of my head that it was all my fault. I wasn’t focused enough and I was too distracted, thinking about the elaborate lies I had made up to every important person in my life. I let down my teammates, coaches, and my family. It felt like my heart, and my entire world, broke into a million pieces.
Later that weekend, my mom told me to watch the movie “Brokeback Mountain.” To this day she doesn’t even remember asking me to give it a watch, because her intention wasn’t for me to connect with the main characters but because it was a movie she felt I’d enjoy.
At the time, I had been dating a girl for 11 months. While watching the movie, it was very hard for me not to cry for the entire 2 hours and 14 minutes. For the first time, I saw myself in somebody, specifically someone in the spotlight. The two main characters could not deal with the fact that they were gay, so they married women, had children and were completely miserable.
After the movie finished, I stared at my ceiling crying enough tears to fill the Atlantic Ocean. Twice. I thought, “This is exactly my life; if I keep dating girls, I’m probably going to get married to one and be unbearably depressed for the rest of my life.”
The next day, I sat my family down and told them I was gay. They loved me and supported me more than I could have ever asked for. They got me to see a therapist and eventually I had the guts to come out to my best friend at the time and tell the truth to my girlfriend, who today is one of my closest friends.
The part I worried about most was telling my teammates. Rowing is a sport in which you have to want to physically feel like you’re dying for the guy in front of you. I was unbelievably afraid that they’d see me differently, not want to associate themselves with me and we would not be as fast as we could be any longer.
When I told them, their reaction was everything I thought was impossible. They said they didn’t see me any differently, apologized for saying slurs that seemed harmless before I came out and even asked when the next sleepover would be. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
After that reaction I felt ready to talk to my two coaches over breakfast at a local diner; that is after I suspected they might be starting to put two and two together. Their reaction, too, were beyond anything I could’ve ever asked for.
After that experience, I felt like I was ready to take on the world. Rumors starting going around my high school that I was still close with my ex-girlfriend because I was gay. She asked me, “Do you still want me to keep this a secret?” After I said, “No, it’s OK,” I wanted to cry with tears of pure happiness and joy.
Later in high school I had a bad injury and college coaches did not want to recruit me because I was a liability. But I wound up at the University of Alabama to row for their club team. I loved the coaches here while my major, Secondary German Education, is insanely specific and I couldn’t believe the university offered it. I said “Roll Tide” and never looked back.
Now, living as an openly gay male at Alabama, I could not be more proud of how far I have come and what I have accomplished. I am surrounded by amazing friends, teammates and coaches who care about my well-being and fully accept my sexuality and who I am as a person.
There is nothing more natural than being a high school or college student who is stressed about where life is going to take them. Adding questioning your sexuality into the mix can make life that much more difficult.
I wish when I was a young kid an LGBTQ athlete would have told me it is possible to succeed in athletics while being in this wonderful community of ours. I always pictured being a gay athlete as something that made me different and inherently not as good or “normal” as my other teammates.
Reading Outsports’ coming out stories has shown me that this is just a small detail about myself and the rest of us. It doesn’t define your athletic capabilities, it doesn’t define who you are as a person, and it doesn’t define what kind of husband, dad and son I am or will be.
Being true to yourself is the best gift you could ever receive. Coming out and being true to myself, when I felt ready to do so, has made my life significantly better.
It is always important to remember that there is no shame in asking for help if you need it. There are so many resources out there filled with people who help athletes, students and everyday people like you and me.
You are never alone and always loved, one way or another.
Jack Lombardo, 21, will be graduating from the University of Alabama in 2022. After his time at Alabama, he plans on going to graduate school and then becoming a high school German teacher. He is a member of the Alabama men’s rowing team as a lightweight. You can reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on instagram at @_jack_lombardo.
Story editor: Jim Buzinski
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