Rhett Hopkins and Sean Gitchell are a college swimmer and diver who have fallen in love. | Courtesy of Rhett Hopkins and Sean Gitchell

The best Christmas present fellow college athletes Rhett Hopkins and Sean Gitchell received in 2021 was each other.

The two college athletes were home in Annapolis, Md., for winter break when they met one another through a mutual friend. While there was an initial spark between the collegiate diver and swimmer, they didn’t quite know at the time what was to come.

For Rhett Hopkins, a diver for the University of Georgia, and Sean Gitchell, a swimmer for the Division III University of Mary Washington, that became apparent in the ensuing weeks.

“We hung out all of Christmas break, every day,” Hopkins told Outsports in a conversation with both athletes.

All of that time together was the perfect foundation for the next two-plus years.

As the two young men returned to their respective schools, 500 miles apart, their time away from one another proved to be formative for both of them, as well as their relationship.

Two college athletes in love

“The emotional connection came after we were physically apart,” Hopkins said. He’d later call Gitchell the “love of my life” on Instagram.

“We got to know that we liked each other, just by fessing up to it. We just told each other how we felt about each other.”

Distance, as the saying goes, made their hearts grow fonder.

That was over two years ago. Today, the two young men are deeply in love, sometimes completing one another’s sentences as they talked with Outsports.

“I love Rhett,” Gitchell said. “He’s great. He brings me back down to earth. It’s nice.

“We’re so different. Having distance between us has made us realize how much we mean to each other. We appreciate our time together more.”

Hopkins agreed.

“He’s the greatest,” Hopkins said of his boyfriend. “People will ask me, ‘What do you love about Sean?’ I don’t know if I can put it into words. He’s so caring. He always tells me how much he loves me. He always makes sure my needs are met. He always makes sure I’m OK.”

The two guys have figured out how to make a long-distance relationship work. A big part of that has been connecting on a daily basis. They Facetime with one another every day, even when it’s difficult to do so.

They also respect one another’s need for some alone time. That’s an important part of virtually every relationship. They each understand the rigors of being a college athlete and the demands that involves.

“A big part to what’s helped us is to communicate the need to be by yourself from time to time,” Hopkins said.

“I had sectionals last week, and I was very tired,” Hopkins said previously. “I had two more exams this week. There have been some nights where all we have in us is, ‘Good night I love you.'”

It’s a relationship built on wisdom beyond their years. 

“We’ve always been very good about talking it out and airing our feelings and not jumping to conclusions about each other,” Hopkins added. “Even when we’re together, we make sure to do the same thing.

“We’ve never had a huge fight. We’ve just been able to prevent a few things by communicating our feelings.”

Being out with college teammates

Those feelings extend to the reception they’ve received from teammates. As both athletes have opened up to their teams about their relationship, they’ve encountered a ton of support, even if there are, at times, simple complications.

“Being on a collegiate team, every queer person has had to code-switch at some point,” Gitchell said. “I think at least my team has made a decent effort to make me feel included.

“It’s OK to not be alike to all the other men because it’s a hyper-masculine environment a lot of the time.”

Hopkins has also observed subtle dynamics, though both men agree there hasn’t been a huge issue.

“Being in a gay relationship the last two years, it’s been eye-opening because I didn’t come out until a couple months into my freshman year,” said Hopkins, who is bisexual. “It was definitely eye-opening to see the shift in how the straight men perceived me.

“None of them were outwardly rude to me. It’s just, something that’s hard to articulate, that shift of how people view you and how I see it.”

Both men have experienced support from teammates. While religion and other topics may creep into the conversation, they are both resolute in their love for one another and their focus on support for gay and bi athletes.

“The people around me have been super good about sticking up for me,” Gitchell said. That support reflects the Out In Sports study conducted by Outsports and the University of Winchester.

“I think a real teammate would accept you no matter what,” Hopkins added. “The people I’ve kept close to me have gone above and beyond to make sure I’m more than comfortable.”

You can follow Rhett Hopkins and Sean Gitchell on Instagram.