Alfred Reft experienced his first coming of age moment playing volleyball at a West Hollywood gym alongside an eclectic group of gay men. Growing up in a conservative family, Reft wasn’t exposed to LGBTQ people, and thus, was uncomfortable with his own sexuality.
That started to change when he saw his new volleyball partners living free and open lives. They taught him how to be comfortable in his own skin, and also, for what it’s worth, it was the best volleyball he could find.
It’s been a long road for Reft, who reckons he’s come out to hundreds of teammates and coaches over the years. The volleyball lifer was a two-time All-American at the University of Hawaii and played seven professional seasons overseas. He touts 12 years of U.S. national team experience as both a coach and player.
And now, he’s the new women’s volleyball coach at UCLA. Reft is back at the place where his gay journey started, just as he’s reaching the pinnacle of his personal and professional lives.
That’s pretty cool.
“When I say this place holds a special spot in my heart, it’s those times coming to LA and developing friendships here at such a young age, and seeing what was possible for me as an openly gay male,” Reft told Outsports. “That was transformative for me. It’s pretty surreal that I’m here now.”
Los Angeles’ volleyball community is special for Reft. He remembers coming to UCLA games as a kid, and seeing Asian players succeed on the court. Their success provided him with the inspiration to pursue his own volleyball career — just like those gays in WeHo encouraged him to embrace his true self.
“I remember at the time going, ‘That person looks like me,’” he said. “It allowed me space to dream and set goals and visions that felt a lot more realistic.”
Reft knows that life isn’t linear. After coming out in high school, he went back into the closet as an undergrad at UC Santa Barbara. Reft was on an athletic team, and felt like he had to protect himself to fit in.
The first monumental shift in Reft’s adult life came when he transferred to Hawaii. Far away from home, he used the opportunity as a chance to redefine himself.
While Reft was building self-confidence, he was also shining on the court. He thinks both triumphs go hand-in-hand.
“I think the biggest thing for anyone is to feel seen, and to feel heard for who you are. When I was able to be out with teammates at the University of Hawaii, my game started to soar,” he said. “I felt seen, I felt supported, and was able to play a lot freer. I think that’s no coincidence.”
Reft uses his own experiences to guide his coaching style. He enjoyed success as an assistant at the University of Minnesota (2010-12) and University of Illinois (2018-19), accumulating a 68-32 conference record at both stints. He reached the Final Four with the Fighting Illini in 2018.
Last season, he coached the University of Santa Diego to its first Final Four appearance in school history.
While winning is important, Reft prioritizes his players’ personal development. He knows the two are linked.
“The way I coach these players is putting an emphasis that, this is a space where you are enough,” he said. “We want to celebrate those unique traits.”
Reft celebrates his life on a regular basis, as visitors to his Instagram page can see. There, he shares pictures of his players, and also of his amazing husband, Ryan. Once again, the personal and professional are intertwined.
“Our love is just real,” said Reft. “ I couldn’t be more proud of the love we share, and the impact we make with each other, but also with the ripples in the community we create around us. He is the absolute pride and joy in my life.”
Much like out gay Vanderbilt volleyball coach Anders Nelson, whom Outsports profiled earlier this month, Reft is proud to be visible.
He knows first-hand the difference that representation can make. It all comes back to that West Hollywood gym.
“It is a big platform to stand on, and I really take it seriously to make sure that hopefully any other young queer person can think larger, because of what they see,” he said. “It pulls at my heartstrings for sure.”
You can follow Alfee Reft on Instagram here.