Anika Roche, out and proud, reestablished UCLA's LGBTQ student-athlete support group after long hiatus with designs on building a long-term future | Anika Roche / UCLA

When most incoming freshmen reach college, they are just trying to feel their way around and find a place that in many ways is a new home.

UCLA rower Anika Roche decided to boldly introduce herself to Westwood as a freshman.

After coming out while captain of her high school rowing team in Illinois, Roche wanted to extend the support she found in high school to her new surroundings as an out lesbian college student-athlete.

“My high school class was 1,000 people and it was isolated,” she recalled. “But at the same time, here I am thriving in this school. Less than one percent of my high school population is lesbian, yet here I am and I am able to live proudly and openly about who I am.

“I found in an athletic setting I was able to be who I am. It was a space and it provided a platform.”

Her thoughts led her to the office of UCLA’s Assistant Athletic Director for Student-Athlete Development Ric Coy with an idea to start a support space for the campus’ LGBTQ student-athletes. She learned that her idea had been done in the past, but it had laid dormant for a decade.

Coy said Roche was eager to take up the challenge.

“Usually I get a senior who comes to me with these great ideas and with these great plans,” Coy said. “I was convinced she was older because of how confident she was about how passionately she talked about it. It’s not common for a freshman to come in with such a mindset.”

Roche said that her sport gave her an early place to be out and proud. She hopes Bruin Pride Alliance can be a catalyst for other student-athletes — Photo courtesy of UCLA Athletics | UCLA Athletic

From that meeting, the Bruin Pride Alliance was born, with Roche as its point person.

It has seen small but steady growth since its first meetings and events last year. This alliance has found ways to make its impact, from working with the university to set up pride games and events, to building relationships with area organizations that aid LGBTQ youth. Some of its members worked with a firm building a training module for coaches and athletic administrators on equity issues.

“We’re still growing our ranks,” Roche said. “So far, those who attend are happy that a space has been formed. It has also started a conversation and that has been one of the best parts of Bruin Pride Alliance.”

Bruin Pride Alliance garners support on campus

Her efforts have also gotten the notice and mentorship of one of the most prominent figures in inclusion in collegiate sports. UCLA associate head softball coach and Sports Equality Foundation founding board member Kirk Walker has been a fan, mentor and sounding board who notes how much the landscape has changed.

“This generation comes in with an expectation of greater awareness of the world,” Walker said. “They have a standard of expectation of what has to exist, and she has no fear of expecting things to happen.

“She’s a freshman around 20 years old. When I came out 15, 16 years ago, she was a baby when those conversations were beginning to happen in college athletics. Her generation is a generation that going to make a lot of change.”

Coy also noted the differences between now and his own college experience as a closeted gay student-athlete at a Division III school in the Midwest in the 1980s.

“I came out of one closet into another closet into a bigger closet into a walk-in closet,” he said. “When I look at this generation and the bravery of it, it is inspiring to me and now it’s time to do my part. My part is to help this grow because I would have been the one shutting it down back in the 80s.”

Roche, now a sophomore, leads Bruin Pride Alliance while managing both her studies and her goals toward working her way up the pecking order on UCLA’s rowing squad. Just as she focused on growing into a frontline place on the boat, she pushes to make this support effort a frontline piece of her campus.

With UCLA heading into a continent-wide Big Ten Conference next year, Roche is enthused by the activity of similar groups among the schools of league Bruin Athletics will join. She says her goal is to learn from them and match them.

She also says her goal is to ensure Bruin Pride Alliance’s growth after she’s graduated. “I want this to have such a foundation that people believe UCLA Athletics and Bruin Pride Alliance were founded in the same year,” she declared. “I want there to be such an open, flowing conversation about LGBTQ athletics that Bruin Pride Alliance serves as a jumping-off point. The end goal is that everyone is included and supported.”

You can follow Anika Roche on Instagram.