University of South Carolina Salkehatchie volleyball coach Dani Aquino, right, with her wife, Sarah.

There are a handful of moments in a person’s life that change their future’s trajectory. Making my high school varsity volleyball team as a freshman after never having played before was one of them.

Growing up in small town Amherst, Mass., there’s not much to do but constantly seek outdoor adventures. I loved to run, climb, lift heavy things, build and create. It didn’t take long for me, and those around me, to see how athletically gifted I was at an early age.

Youth soccer, gymnastics and basketball leagues didn’t do it for me and I found myself searching for my athletic spark. The first time I stepped foot on the volleyball court I was hooked. It was like my body was built for the sport.

School ball led to club/travel ball and my athletic passion continued to grow. I flourished as a varsity athlete in softball as well as lacrosse, and I look back at those varsity teams as some of the most influential years of my life.

Amherst is a forward-thinking, liberal town full of thousands of people with varying backgrounds, ethnicities and cultures, thanks to the numerous colleges that surrounded us. My own friend group was an equal slice of ethnic America that I have not been able to duplicate since. In high school, it was normal to walk by a lunch table filled with 10 people, each from a different ethnic group, socioeconomic background or childhood. I sat next to a girl in homeroom who had two moms while another girl on my lacrosse team had two dads. My reaction to that was envy, since they had two loving parents at home when I was being raised by a single mom.

Despite my meager childhood, I didn’t realize how fortunate I was to grow up in that environment until I left to play volleyball in college. Leaving a sleepy town in Massachusetts for an even duller town in Maine, I was excited to play at the next level. I joined my team as a freshman tri-captain and to my pleasant surprise, I dominated as a rookie.

One unexpectedly fun aspect about playing college volleyball was having my own “fan club.” I and a couple other girls on my team each had a small group of fellow students who would attend all our games. They’d make us signs, bring balloons and cheer for us louder than anyone else. My “club” was compromised of two women’s ice hockey players, one softball player and a wickedly funny self-proclaimed comedian. One night, the club leader, one of the ice hockey players, came onto me.

Until that moment I never really considered a relationship with a woman. Despite my first sexual encounters being with another female, I never saw those moments as anything more than “practice.” But my fan club leader’s advance took me aback. I was immediately embarrassed and flustered. I ended up laughing off her flirtations as drunk moments, but something about those instances with her ruffled me.

After college, living just outside of Fenway Park, I was competing and succeeding in a semi-pro volleyball league. I was in my early 20s, single and having the time of my life. I was hooking up with guys as well as girls. Looking back I realize I never cared about a person’s parts — what mattered was if they were funny, smart or cute and if they could keep up with me.

However, anytime I found myself in a long-term relationship it was with a guy. Yet, despite each relationship lasting multiple years, I always ended them. I found myself constantly drained by being with immature men who were unable to articulate their feelings and emotions.

Despite my sexual fluidity, I was always battling that persistent voice in my head that told me to keep searching for what I thought was the “nuclear family.” A toxic voice that came from influences around me pushing me to make decisions that went against my own gut. Because of that, I ended up marrying a guy I had been with for six years.

Despite all the red flags and conflict, I pressed on. And as much as I’d like to say I regret marrying him, I firmly believe everything happens for a reason. And it was at the end of that marriage that I found and met my wife, Sarah.

Taking part in a mutual friend’s wedding as a bridesmaid and groomsmaid, we connected instantly. Both athletes, we discovered we were each in relationships with people who did not support how often our sports took us away from them. Her girlfriend resented her late soccer games and my husband despised the weekends I traveled for my volleyball tournaments.

After the wedding we kept in touch only sparsely as we dealt with the terminations of our toxic relationships. It wasn’t until much later when we were both single that we found each other again. She was playing in a soccer game only five minutes from where I was living and asked if I wanted to come watch her play. I gladly showed up, grabbed a beer, took a seat and watched her kick butt as a seasoned goalie. After the game we went back to my place and found that our connections went further than our mutual love of sports. We often look back upon that night fondly as the night that led us down the path we now walk together.

Bringing her to meet my family was shockingly uneventful as they greeted her with the same love and affection they’ve greeted any new person in my life over the years. They didn’t even blink or question her as the first woman I’ve ever brought home.

In July, we will have been married for five years. We have 3-year-old twins, Jaxson and Addison, and every day I wake up and think I’m dreaming. We have the perfect family and our days are full of love and life.

It wasn’t until about four years ago that I learned the term “pansexual.” Explained as “people, not parts” by many, it perfectly describes my slice of queerness. I never put too much in stock in the physical parts of my partners, simply how they added to my life.

As a college volleyball coach at the University of South Carolina Salkehatchie, I feel my position is imperative to teaching acceptance and growth. I try to educate others in sexual identity and provide a safe space to all players on my court. As a college and club coach, each season is a new opportunity to help influence teenage and young adult women in their journeys of self-discovery, fueling their minds to always remain open and understanding of others.

Dani Aquino is the head women’s volleyball coach at the University of South Carolina Salkehatchie. In her first season in 2022, she tripled the wins over the previous year’s program and doubled all earned points in every conference match over the previous three years. She is entering her 15th year as a head volleyball coach and lives in North Charleston, S.C., with her wife Sarah and twins Jaxson and Addison. You can follow her team on Instagram at @USCSalkWVB and find her at @CoachDani7

Story editor: Jim Buzinski

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

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