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For gay Ohio State swimmer, pool became his safe space

After Nathan Holty started coming out to teammates in high school and college, he saw his confidence soar and his performances improve.

Nathan Holty is an Ohio State junior and competes on the men’s swim team.
Nathan Holty is an Ohio State junior and competes on the men’s swim team.

The two most prominent things that make up my identity are being a swimmer and being gay.

Swimming has been with me my whole life. I come from a family of swimmers and grew up around the pool in Ohio. From a young age, I would be dragged to my sister’s practices where I would sit in the bleachers while my mom coached on deck.

I was amazed at how fast the older kids could move through the water. I looked up to them and instantly wanted to be just like them. I was finally able to convince my mom to let me join the swim team so I could learn how to be just like my older sister. As soon as I jumped in the water for my first practice, I joined a long line of swimmers in my family. From that point forward I knew that the two most important things in my life would be swimming and my family.

Fast forward eight years to my last year of junior high. I was still in the pool just as before, but there was something different. It was a lack of confidence in myself that stemmed from an internal battle. It was an internal battle that I think all of us queer people know too well.

At the time the boys I was around started taking an interest in the girls and expressed their innocent middle school crush. However, I started taking an interest in those boys. To my family, this wasn’t some innocent middle school crush.

Nathan Holty specializes in individual medley, breaststroke and freestyle.

My family went to church most Sundays and my mom was raised Catholic. We were not the strictest family when it came to religion, but if there was one thing for sure it was that marriage was to only be between a man and a woman.

I finally came to the point where I could not ignore my internal struggle any longer and I began coming out to my closest friends. I was immediately showered with love and support. However, one place I avoided making that declaration was to my teammates. I was so scared that if I said something, they would look at me differently, see me as weak and be uncomfortable around me in the locker room.

I didn’t know if I could be gay and swim (at the time I didn’t even know if gay people could play any sport). There was no one that I could look up to. I had come to the point where I was drowning in this fake persona I was presenting to my teammates and couldn’t take it anymore.

I somehow built up the courage to come out to my teammates. They didn’t believe me at first and thought I was joking. After they realized that I was telling the truth, I was mostly met with acceptance. Over time my teammates didn’t just see me as a gay guy but as a valuable teammate and friend in and out of the pool.

I was finally out and open to everyone except for the people who were the most important in my life. I managed to find my courage yet again and come out to my former coach, who also happened to be my mother. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.

I knew about my family’s position when it came to same-sex relationships, but I thought that because I was her son, my mom would understand and accept me. I was wrong. It didn’t take long for the rest of my immediate family to find out and for me to face the same painful rejection again from the people closest to my life.

I resorted to the pool. The pool was a safe space for me. A place to isolate myself, process my feelings and emotions and let out my aggressions. It was a safe space to take a break from the chaos in my life.

I continued to struggle with acceptance from my family throughout my high school career. We seemed to have an unspoken agreement to not talk about my sexuality or address it. I continued to let my emotions out in the pool, which was a positive. I was so locked in that my training and performances started to gain the attention of college coaches and recruiters. When choosing where to go to college, I looked for a place where I could see myself grow and be challenged but also be met with support and acceptance. I found that place at Ohio State.

From Day 1 at Ohio State, I didn’t have to hide from anyone. I am able to live openly and happily around my teammates, coaches and support staff who sincerely care about me. I couldn’t ask for a more accepting team. In my freshman year at OSU, I became a co-founder for Buckeye Spectrum, a student-athlete organization creating and promoting safe spaces through visibility and representation of LGBTQIA+ athletes of all racial and gender identities.

I began to rediscover my “why” for swimming. Why I wake up at 5 a.m. for 5:30 practices, why I work out 20-plus hours a week, and why I continue to try again after failures. I do it so I can try to be a role model for a struggling gay kid in swimming, someone I wish I had to look up to when I was younger.

After being away from home, my mother started to realize our differences, how we grew up, and how we developed our beliefs. But one thing that remains the same between us is our sport. Swimming is something we can both agree on even when it may seem like we can’t agree on anything else. I don’t want to paint my family in a bad light. Some in my extended family have been very supportive. They mean so much to me and I love them so much, which is why this whole journey has been so painful.

In addition to swimming, Nathan Holty is co-founder for Buckeye Spectrum, a student-athlete organization creating and promoting safe spaces through visibility and representation of LGBTQIA+ athletes.
In addition to swimming, Nathan Holty is co-founder for Buckeye Spectrum, a student-athlete organization creating and promoting safe spaces through visibility and representation of LGBTQIA+ athletes.

After I came out, my self-acceptance gave me the confidence to live openly and freely in this sport. There were noticeable improvements in my performances because I felt way more confident in myself. Since high school I have scored numerous points for OSU, achieved four individual wins, qualified for USA swimming nationals, had a national top 50 performance in the 400-meter individual medley and on the path to compete in the 2024 U.S. Olympic Trials.

My experience with being out in swimming has been better than I could have imagined. But I know this is not always the case for everyone. Homophobia is still a very relevant issue within swimming and has been observed from the age group club level to the international level.

We have made major steps as a society from what things have been like in the past, but there is still room to grow. It is the responsibility of leaders, coaches and teammates to help provide an inclusive space for anyone and everyone’s identities.

It took me a while to finally share my story. I still feel like I’m fighting some battles, but I am finally finding love for myself and have found my pride. For those that are out of the closet, it is important to be proud of who you are to help pave the way for our future generations so we can leave our big blue planet better than we found it.

Nathan Holty attends The Ohio State University and is a junior this fall. He is studying astrophysics and astronomy with a minor in engineering sciences. He is on the swimming and diving team and specializes in individual medley, breaststroke and freestyle. When he was 6, he competed with the Dayton Raiders in Ohio and was also part of the Idle Hour swim team for summer league as well as the Beavercreek High School swim team. At Beavercreek he earned varsity all four years, was co-captain his senior year and set three team records. In his senior year he won the 2020 Greater Western Ohio Boys Swimming Athlete of the Year, was a three-time USA Swimming Scholastic All-American, and was named in the 18 and Under World 100 List in the 400 IM. He can be reached via Instagram.

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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