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From college swimmer to high school coach, gay athlete stayed true to himself

‘The most challenging part of being gay has actually been encouraging myself to be more open with others,’ MacJilton Lewis writes.

MacJilton Lewis in the pool
MacJilton Lewis swam for Cleveland State University.
Garbiella Marinelli

Sport has always been an escape for me. Most of life’s troubles, though not all, are put on the back burner when I work out.

Each time I exercise, I am grateful for a life that allows me to live as an athlete, passionate about fitness. During “pandemic life,” Peloton classes have been my go-to workout. However, for 13 years of my life growing up, swimming was my sport of choice. Swimming structured my life and shaped me to be who I am today.

My swimming journey has provided me with many opportunities to advance myself. I competed as a NCAA Division I student-athlete. That led to working in collegiate athletics post-grad. I have even had the opportunity to be a head coach at the high school level. I’ve seen and experienced many different sides of the sport, and have grown as a person throughout these stages.

While working out, life’s troubles migrate to the back of my mind, but one that knocks around in my brain regardless is my sexuality. I struggle with it.

MacJilton Lewis  in the pool.
MacJilton Lewis was inspired by Tom Daley’s coming out story.
Sharon Oltman

The earliest I remember understanding my true self was my junior year of high school. When British diver Tom Daley announced he was gay, it resonated with me. I have memories that predate this event, but his story serves as a milestone as I look back on my coming out journey.

I would sit in the dining room of my house and watch over and over the coming out video Daley shared on his YouTube channel. I have always had a love for British aquatics, and his announcement hit home. It made me feel not alone. It helped me understand first-hand the importance of living and loving truthfully, as well as that sharing the truth can inspire others.

Looking back, if Tom Daley had not done what he had, my coming out story would most likely be different. However, he did not solely influence my entire story. There were other influences, as well.

The first time I ever remember opening up about my sexuality was with my mother following the tragic death of a swimmer I admired. It was my junior year in high school, and this swimmer was my first “crush from afar.” I found it very difficult to process his passing. My mom has always been supportive of me, and did not waver when we had this discussion. If anything, she became even more understanding. I am also blessed to have a supportive father, too.

However, after that first conversation with my mom, it was not as if the floodgates opened and I began telling everyone in my life that I was gay. You would think that telling the first person is the hardest, but in reality, it takes a great deal of confidence and bravery to tell anybody at any point in your life.

MacJilton Lewis on the podium at the Horizon League championships in his junior year in the 400 IM.
MacJilton Lewis on the podium at the Horizon League championships in his junior year in the 400 IM.

Even during periods where you can naturally “start over,” I have found it difficult to live openly as who I am. For instance, the beginning of college is a great opportunity to start a new chapter living a whole new way.

Even though I could sense I was in a supportive environment at Cleveland State (where I attended college and competitively swam), it was not until my sophomore year that I was ready to open up to one of my teammates. Looking back, I wish I was more open from the start, but I cannot disregard the fact that I was not ready to talk about it then. I was ready when I was ready.

I selectively let others on the team know. Most had wondered or professed to have a hunch. Their concerns were for me and making sure I was happy. It was a relief letting more in on my truth. Each small step felt like a giant leap for my life. Telling these teammates didn’t change my dynamic with them. We still worked hard together through hard sets and dryland. We still ate together after practice. We were teammates and friends through it all.

MacJilton Lewis in the pool for Cleveland State.
MacJilton Lewis in the pool for Cleveland State.
Andrew Yoshi

It seems that the hardest part of my college years was opening up to other people. That says something, for I endured numerous challenging tasks. I was elected president of the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee and Student Alumni Association simultaneously my senior year. I planned the school’s homecoming parade. I double-majored as an honors student all four years, and balanced all of that with my practice schedule. I achieved in the pool too, making the podium at the Horizon League championships my freshman year in the mile and my junior year in the 400 IM.

Since college, I have opened up to more people in my life about my authentic self and feel fortunate to say that my journey has been positive. I am grateful to have the support of many friends, teammates and coworkers. The most challenging part of being gay has still been encouraging myself to be more open with others. I feel I have to kick myself to do that even to this day, for coming out really has no ending. It is a continuous series of events that occurs throughout your life.

However, I cannot stress the importance of going at your own pace. Finding the right time to take that next step in a coming out journey should be one that is taken when one is ready. You decide.

At my first job post-college, an opportunity arose to express who I was within a few months of starting. The job was at Duke University in North Carolina, where I worked as a digital media assistant in the athletics department. The women’s field hockey team (one of the sports whose content I managed) was hosting a Pride game in the fall of 2019. I was debating wearing rainbow apparel to the event.

Realizing that I wanted to start this chapter in my life openly as much as possible, I decided to add a few rainbows to what I was wearing. I was glad that I did. I received nothing but support and I had a fun time, too. I was proud of myself for feeling ready to take this next step in my coming out journey.

I also realized that, at the end of the day your life is your life, and it should be lived your way. Your desire to live it your way needs to outweigh any negativity from other people.

MacJilton Lewis at Duke.
After graduating, MacJilton Lewis worked at Duke as a digital media assistant in the athletics department.

The Covid-19 pandemic places a whole new spin on the above statement. In my first year as head coach of a high school swimming team, the uncertainty of the season ahead put into perspective the importance of living in the present and not taking time for granted. I saw lives quickly taken away from families I know, including my own.

The pandemic was poised to rob so much of the high school experience from the student-athletes I was coaching. I made a promise to do everything in my power to make the season as enjoyable as possible. I made an effort to be my fun self and inspire my swimmers to take advantage of the present, do their best and live to the fullest.

The assistant coaches, whom I am out to, were a big help in this process. We made sure to always smile, even through the most challenging times. We asked the athletes to share their favorite songs, pulling together a playlist for practices. We guided the athletes in goal setting, and celebrated every achievement — big and small. Most important, we talked about attitude. While much was out of our control, we could control how we handled things. Ten swimmers qualified for state, a majority of the team achieved best times and best of all, we succeeded together as a team.

I have come to realize that happiness truly starts with yourself. I understand the importance of loving myself for who I am: an athlete, a coach, a son, a brother and a friend — who happens to be gay. I do my best to instill this love for life and authentic self by lifting up others whenever possible and being there to support anyone when needed.

MacJilton Lewis is now a high school swim coach.
MacJilton Lewis is now a high school swim coach.
Steve Spooner

The pool is central to my self-acceptance story, which started with the courage of a diver who lived on the other side of the world. I am thankful for the life that swimming has given me. It has helped me embrace who I am and has encouraged me to live life as me. Life is too short for anything else.

MacJilton “Mac” Lewis, 24, graduated from Cleveland State University in 2019. After swimming four years for the Vikings, he went on to work as a digital media assistant in the athletic department at Duke. He currently works at a food rescue nonprofit in Cincinnati, known as La Soupe, and is the head swim coach at his alma mater, Mariemont High School. You can reach him via email (macjiltonslewis@gmail.com) or on Facebook or Instagram (@macjilton).

Story editor: Jim Buzinski

If you are an out LGBTQ person in sports and want to tell your story, email Jim (kandreeky@gmail.com)

Check out our archive of coming out stories.

If you’re an LGBTQ person in sports looking to connect with others in the community, head over to GO! Space to meet and interact with other LGBTQ athletes, or to Equality Coaching Alliance to find other coaches, administrators and other non-athletes in sports.

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