Ford McLiney was the first-ever SEC Champion men's diver for Texas A&M, in 2014. | Courtesy of Ford McLiney

Platform diving is not just a sport.

It’s a three-story-high confrontation with fear, a 1.3-second rush that challenges you to stand tall and declare, “I am stronger.” 

And for me, it was more than a competition. It was a friend, and a refuge. Nothing else mattered. But like any journey, I found that its victories and defeats all contributed to the person I am today.

In 2011, I achieved what most athletes can only imagine, I signed with my dream school, Florida State University. I had always wanted to go to Florida State, and I had always wanted to train under Patrick Jeffrey, one of the first openly gay Olympic athletes ever, competing in 1988 and 1996. This was the dream opportunity, with the dream coach, and receiving a scholarship put me on cloud 9. Pat and I clicked, I won an ACC medal and freshmen of the year award. However, the euphoria of my dream program was short-lived. 

Unprepared to leave home and struggling with self-love, I made mistakes that year, which ultimately led to my departure from the team in 2012. A transfer to Texas A&M just before the Olympic trials left me coachless, and voiding any dream of an Olympic journey. I learned alot from this. I suppose sometimes it takes a huge mistake, to figure out how to make things right.

Amid this hard time, my internal struggles intensified. Wrestling with my identity, societal expectations, and the consequences of a facade, I wrestled with challenges. This struggle manifested in destructive behavior, including an attempt to alter my voice to fit societal norms. 

The battle towards acceptance was a tough experience. I constantly felt external perceptions and was fearful of locker room jokes. In all seriousness, I joined in the jokes.. and they offended me. But bigger than that, I grappled with people assuming they knew my sexuality. How could they know my sexuality before I did? Call it what they want, all of this was loud. All of it was in my face. And it scared me. I didn’t know how to cope.

McLiney reaches out to another gay NCAA athlete

In the midst of this turbulence, hope emerged. I came across multiple shared articles, featuring a Purdue swimmer, Ryan Dafforn. Outsports was interviewing openly gay athletes. Seeing the support he received from this article absolutely inspired me. The pure happiness as an out gay Division I swimmer gave me hope. Despite my initial reservations, I reached out to him. And that changed everything for me. I guess it shows the power of “Sharing” on social media and friendship.

Ryan offered unwavering support. His friendship became a lifeline, guiding me toward self-love and acceptance. In the darkest corners of my journey, he showed me the good. Facetiming within just a couple days of reaching him, he became a friend I desperately needed. His encouragement and wisdom slowly helped dismantle the walls I had built around myself. I was finally becoming okay with myself and my gayness.

With newfound confidence, I started excelling at Texas A&M. I started to prioritize my sport again, I stopped worrying about what everybody thought, and I started to focus on what made me happy. Diving made me happiest, and I was not going to let anything get in the way of my growth on the diving board. 

After my realization, I became a 2-time SEC champion and a National Finalist. The transformation within me was profound, both athletically and personally. My grades went up, I stopped getting in trouble, I was happy, and I was growing. Interestingly enough, my relationships with my teammates became closer. I suppose that’s what honesty does.

With my new realization came acknowledgment. My coaches started to notice. Their words echoed the change. It went from admonishing me to acknowledging my growth. 

My smile got bigger, my head held higher. Ryan, my distant friend, remained my cheerleader from afar, a testament to the power of acceptance and friendship. 

I was gay, and I was finally proud of myself. Finding a friend, or being a friend can change the course of your life when you least expect it. I encourage anybody reading to remember that.

I graduated, and I finally saw myself as whole. Something within me changed. I was proud of my growth in those four years. 

They say, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” I guess that’s why I wanted to write this article. I want to encourage anybody I can to be honest, and authentic. But more importantly, be a good teammate.

Now helping others as a coach

Today, I am an openly gay Diving Coach and Business Owner. I have recently re-entered the diving world, in hopes that I can bring something to the community in coaching, that Ryan gave me all those years ago. Perhaps I’ll come across somebody not unlike myself all those years ago.

My coaching journey mirrors my commitment to personal development, nurturing athletic and professional potential alike. As I continue this path, my goal remains unwavering: I want to empower divers with opportunities beyond the diving board, bridging their dreams and professional careers, and while doing so, I hope to foster an atmosphere of acceptance, and love. I want to pay everything I was given, forward. I want to be a leader that students feel like they can rely on. I want to be the friend that Ryan was to me.

The journey may be unconventional, the story hopefully relatable, and the lessons learned in my 20’s,,  and the connections since forged have shaped a resilient, authentic version of myself, thanks in no small part to the transformative influence of a friend named Ryan. Thanks OutSports for making it happen.

Ford McLiney is a former diver for Texas A&M and is now coaching diving. You can follow him on Instagram. You can also email him at [email protected].