Anders Nelson remembers his reaction when Michael Sam publicly came out as gay. As a collegiate volleyball player, Nelson lacked out gay role models in male team sports, and finally, there was somebody to whom he could look up.
But Nelson still wasn’t sure if he could come out himself. He didn’t know how he would be perceived, and was afraid to take that step.
That changed when he went home to care for an ailing friend. The experience taught Nelson that life is precious, and it was time for him to start living it to the fullest.
He came out shortly thereafter, and it’s been an incredible journey ever since.
“I realized my sexuality wasn’t a problem. It wasn’t a health issue. It wasn’t something that was holding me back,” Nelson told Outsports. “[My friend’s] illness honestly put that in perspective for me.”
A decade later, Nelson is thriving on all fronts. He just celebrated his one-year wedding anniversary with his husband, Mark, and was recently hired to lead a relaunched Division 1 volleyball program at a prestigious SEC school.
Vanderbilt University tapped Nelson last month to coach women’s volleyball, the school’s 17th varsity sport. The program was originally discontinued after the 1979-80 academic year.
Now, Nelson has been gifted with a blank canvass to rebuild the program from scratch. He wasn’t in a rush to leave Kentucky, where he was an assistant coach for 11 years. But this opportunity was too good to pass up.
“The little kid in me feels like I’m playing a video game almost,” he said. “I get to form a whole program and a whole roster and a staff and all of those things. It’s the complete package. I don’t know where else you would get this, all of what Vanderbilt offers.”
Situated in Nashville, Tenn., Vanderbilt’s pristine campus represents an idyllic version of college life. Nelson envisions staying there for a long time, where he hopes to foster deep connections with his players.
He says his experiences as a gay man have helped him prioritize his player’s needs as people, and not just athletes.
“It’s made me a lot more aware of making sure that every player in our program feels like they have a place, and feels like they belong,” he said. “In college, I didn’t feel comfortable. I didn’t feel like I’d be accepted. Looking back, I would’ve been, but at the time, I didn’t feel like I could. I don’t ever want to make an athlete feel that way.”
There is a small cohort of out gay volleyball coaches. Last week, Outsports profiled Andrew Brown, who’s turned NYU’s Division III program into a perennial powerhouse.
“The community I was most afraid of coming out to was the volleyball coaching community,” he said. “I was so afraid of how it would hurt our program recruiting. I thought it would hurt our program, and I don’t really know why now. It’s one of those fears you create in your head.”
Prospective players don’t have to engage in a lot of digging to find that Nelson is a proud and happily married gay man. His Instagram page is filled with beautiful photos of him and Mark.
Nelson is no longer hiding. He’s out in the open, and it feels great.
“I’m really proud of what Mark and I have, and I think if you’re proud of it, you should post it,” he said.
You can follow Anders Nelson on Instagram here.