The winter of 2020 was the most terrifying, difficult and proud time of my life.

It was a time of trying to balance being on a year-round swim team, finishing high school with straight A’s, starting college, coaching at a local swim school and coming out as gay to my family. It was an extremely strenuous time as a 17-year-old living in Northern Virginia.

Having to come out in a Catholic and more conservative household was immensely overwhelming, but with a few of my closest friends and supporters, I managed to come out to my family after Christmas dinner in 2020.

Having come out in my personal life meant I also had to be out on my year-round swim team. Having to share a locker room without any other known queer teammates made it difficult because I didn’t want myself or anyone else to feel uncomfortable.

The word “fag” was tossed around often in locker rooms, so the environment didn’t make it any easier. A past coach of mine once told a story when we were doing drylands (working out on land). He explained that his former teammates got together once and each took their turn discussing their biggest fears. He discussed that his greatest fear was having a son later in life and the son comes out as gay.

The non-supportive environment made it incredibly difficult to come out, but with my best friend Emma’s help I was able to slowly come out to my friends on the team through the use of social media. Creating private stories on Snapchat allowed me to come out to those closest to me on the team.

There were mixed reactions because some of my friends on the team were deeply religious Catholics. All of the guys on my swim team were accepting and supportive, which was shocking at the time. The nerves that I had about being gay in a locker room all disappeared. They talked with me about my dating life and other topics that caught me off guard, but made it feel so much more friendly.

Ethan Crawdford with a fellow swim coach of the Little Fish team in Virginia.

A few weeks later, one of my friends on the team, who was also with me in a local Catholic youth group, mentioned that she wanted to try and convert me. She said that she had previously “prayed the gay away” and that I’m “better than this.” It was hurtful coming from a friend who I had assumed I was close with. She had multiple discussions with me and it didn’t get any better.

The rest of my swim team was shocked by her trying to convert me. She soon felt not welcome and left the swim team. I felt hurt and confused at the same time. The girl who tried to convert me had been my friend, while I wasn’t very close with the guys, and yet they made me feel the most welcome.

Having to undergo these experiences gave me the courage to be outspoken about queer rights, especially in the pool. My love of the sport continued despite the challenges and it grew when I started coaching locally for a swim school. I just recently graduated with my associates degree at community college and am transferring to James Madison University, where hopefully I can continue swimming.

Finding a supportive community is one battle, but having to love and accept yourself comes first. Loving oneself will make life feel more fulfilling and complete while accomplishing goals. Having these various reactions changed my perspective on not caring about what others will think. Being true with myself gave me the confidence I needed to be happy with myself and my sexuality.

Ethan Crawford, 18, is pursuing a political science degree at James Madison University while working as a swim manager/swim coach at Little Fish Swimming. He was a swimmer on his high school and year-round swims team and will continue at James Madison’s club team. He can be reached via email: [email protected] and on Instagram (@ethancraw03).

Story editor: Jim Buzinski

If you are an out LGBTQ person in sports and want to tell your story, email Jim ([email protected])

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.