The night I received my acceptance letter to Syracuse University was one of the most exciting, joyous and freeing moments of my life. While the thought of moving across the country to a place I had never been made me nervous, I had never felt more proud of myself.
Starting college on the opposite side of the country, away from my friends and family in Seattle, knowing no one but the names of my coaches and roommate, was very intimidating. What I thought was going to be the perfect opportunity for growth soon turned into an intensified apprehension of being outed as gay or not fitting in with the rest of my recruited freshmen class.
During the second weekend of college in 2017, the senior class of guys on the rowing team, along with our team captains, held a BBQ, inviting everyone over to a house to mix and mingle and break the ice.
It was here where I met one of my teammates who was a year above me and already out and living his best life true to himself.
With a smile on his face and a laugh that could be heard across the room, he was everywhere, greeting and catching up with everyone on the team. At this point in my life, I had never met someone like him, let alone in an athletic environment, and I had no idea what to expect.
However, his presence on the team gave me a sense of relief. I got to preview how everyone on the team treated and interacted with him. It also took away from there being a spotlight on me while knowing I had someone I could reach out to and confide in, if needed.
Unfortunately, old habits die hard, and with all the uncertainty of it still being my first semester of freshman year, all I wanted was to bond with my teammates and fit in. Although I admit, as much as I tried to be discreet, nothing could keep me from occasionally blasting Fergie, Nicki Minaj or Beyoncé over my speakers.
As the season went on in what’s commonly a heterosexually dominant environment, and as a secretly gay athlete, I grew insecure wondering that if my teammates knew I was gay, they would judge me if I wasn’t fast or strong enough.
This same insecurity made me fear what biases or predispositions my coaches might have as I was still getting to know them and didn’t want to disadvantage myself when it came down to boat selections, or them creating daily boat lineups, by letting anyone know.
I had cultivated an unhealthy mindset that in order to come out as gay, I needed to perform better than many of my heterosexual teammates.
I should have known better, given that I had never seen any of my fears hold any truth when applied to my teammate, who was already living as an openly gay athlete. Instead, what had become an obvious defense mechanism created so much noise in my head that I couldn’t see reality.
Finally, the second semester had come, and we had just returned from our spring training trip from South Carolina. Even in March, Onondaga Lake in Syracuse, N.Y., was just beginning to thaw out.
One morning, I woke up feeling particularly sick of myself and in my feelings as I stared at my ceiling. As the sun rose, peeking through the clouds, my bedroom became slowly brighter from all the light reflecting off the snow outside, which stood about a foot deep. It was silent and beautiful outside, yet I felt so cold and alone while bundled beneath my comforter.
Wrestling with my feelings that morning, out of bed and down to the dining hall, I could barely eat. Struggling to concentrate in class that day, I felt scatterbrained, just endeavoring to go through the motions until 3:30 p.m., when it was time to hop on the bus to practice.
At that point, I had no other option but to sit on the bus and grapple with my emotions, which I knew were rooted as a consequence of hiding part of my identity. It was so cold I could see my breath, and as we got closer to the boathouse, I continued to feel increasingly anxious, not knowing what would happen.
By the time we launched for practice and got on the water, I felt as if I had left all my emotional baggage back on the dock as I now had to be focused sitting in bow seat and watching for ice sheets on the river as we rowed.
But as soon as practice ended that evening and I stepped back onto the dock, I was flooded with emotions again, unable to feel much of my hands and feet because of the cold. After putting all the equipment away, we scurried up the stairs to the locker room to shower and warm up.
But as I was packing up, I stopped and decided there was something I needed to get off my chest. I walked back outside shaking, not because of the cold but because of how nervous I felt. As I returned downstairs to the boat bay, I found Jason Elefant, an assistant coach, standing, looking at his phone. As I called his name to tell him there was something I needed to say, I immediately began to cry as I made eye contact.
What came out of my mouth next must have sounded like broken English between me crying and choking up, telling him that I’d never told anyone this but that I was gay and had been struggling with my mental health.
Immediately, and without hesitation, Jason wrapped his arms around me, hugging me, telling me that it would all be OK and that he and everyone else on the team were there to support me. Finally, I was able to catch my breath and Jason told me that the boathouse was a safe place where I could express myself without fear and come to clear my mind on the water.
That evening, all I could think about was how every coming-out story should be met with the open arms of someone there to accept and catch you in case you fall.
What began with the support of a coach encouraged me to come out to the only two friends I had outside of my crew team. As I told both of them, they cheered for me in excitement.
Blown away by their reaction, I sat there speechless with eyes wide open. This was also the first time I had anyone tell me to my face that they suspected I was gay but never brought it up because, to them, it didn’t matter if I was straight, gay or bi.
Thrilled that I had felt comfortable enough to come out to them, they wanted to know everything and if I had come out to my roommate/teammate at the time. What felt like fire alarms going off in my head, I quickly responded with, “No, are you crazy!” This was someone I was sharing a room with, let alone saw every morning, day and night. Why would I want to risk awkwardness between my straight roommate and me? What if he wasn’t accepting as everyone else had been?
I sat with this thought in my head for the rest of the week, running through every possibility and how I’d respond to each scenario, as I knew this was something I should figure out sooner rather than later. I had already lied to him whenever he asked about girls, and to make matters worse, our bedroom tended to be where the rest of our freshman teammates hung out and played video games.
I had only what felt like a small window of opportunity.
That following Saturday, after morning practice and breakfast, my roommate and I walked back to our dorm room. As we began unpacking our backpacks, I mentioned that there was something I wanted to tell him but wasn’t sure if he’d already known or not.
As I came out to him, what happened next was unlike any of my prior experiences. He opened up, telling me that one of his best friends from high school was gay and that he had even had a gay uncle who had unfortunately passed away.
This experience only strengthened our friendship, and with each teammate of ours that came by our room to hangout my roommate would chuckle with a smirk on his face and say, “Guess what guys, Mitch is gay!” as if I had won some award, but to me felt like a loaded gun to my head.
Contrary to the sinking feeling I expected I would have, each guy would say things like, “That’s awesome,” “Congrats,” or “Give me a hug.”
Little did I know I was surrounded by so much love during my freshman year. I had blinded myself out of fear of not being accepted into a community when the only person not accepting of me was myself.
Being an openly gay athlete on the Syracuse men’s rowing team was the best experience I could have ever asked for during my four years of college. Not only were all my teammates, coaches and athletic trainers accepting, supportive and open-minded, but they never treated me any less differently because of my sexual orientation.
By sharing my story, I hope to inspire both those in the closet and those who are openly themselves to pause and reflect on the people in their lives. It’s important to recognize that these individuals love and accept you just as you are, even when you might doubt yourself.
In learning to accept yourself, you can remove many mental barriers that may otherwise hinder you and your potential achievements. I believe that by embracing self-acceptance, you can broaden your emotional capacity to improve yourself and help build up others; as my head coach, Dave Reischman, would always say, “Go spread the sunshine.”
Mitchell Harjo graduated from Syracuse University in 2021, double majoring in Psychology and History, making the 2020-21 Atlantic Coast Conference Academic Honor Roll. As part of the Syracuse University men’s rowing team, Mitch represented his academic class all four years as a member of the team’s Leadership Council. He finished his senior year racing in both the varsity eight (1V8) and second varsity eight (2V8), where he placed fifth at the IRA National Championships. Mitch currently works out of Washington, D.C., for a scientific nonprofit centered around optics and photonics and volunteers at the Human Rights Campaign as part of their Political Action and Community Engagement Committee (PACE). He rows for pleasure and enjoys running Spartan races with hopes of running a triathlon and or joining an adult competitive swim league in the future. You can can reach him at email@example.com, Instagram: @mitcharjo or LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/mitchellharjo/
Story editor: Jim Buzinski
If you are an out LGBTQ person in sports and want to tell your story, email Jim (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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