When I started running, it was my freshmen year of high school in San Jose, Calif. Going into it, the idea of running more than a mile made my stomach hurt. I begged and pleaded with my parents to not make me join the cross-country team.
I was already skinny, had acne and some would consider my voice to be at a high octave. I was not about to put myself on a podium to be ostracized for yet another thing — being slow.
After the back and forth with my parents, we agreed that if I did not like the first cross-country season, I could quit and never have to run again. To my surprise, it was their encouragement and my physical improvement that kept me going back to the track. Looking back on it, taking that risk allowed me to control my fear, and was probably the best decision of my life.
It wasn’t until my junior year of high school that I had a moment of realization that I could run in college. From that moment, I began the recruiting process. To my surprise, this whole process would then be uprooted by the COVID-19 pandemic. As upsetting as it was, it was the blessing in disguise that gave me a reset from my running competitions.
Fast-forward to senior year and I was at the point where I began talking to Division I coaches. Eventually, I was welcomed with open arms by Jason Zarb-Cousin, the new head coach at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. Stepping up from an assistant position, he had a vision to reshape the culture of the program. For me, I was stoked to be able to work with the new era of LMU, a program that had previously sent runners to NCAA Championships and Olympic Trials.
At the end of my senior year, I was just coming off my breakout track season. This was going to set me up well for collegiate cross-country and track. The summer before my freshman year of college, I had to say goodbye to what I had known. All of the people who I was closest to went in their own directions and I began to reorient myself towards making sure I could “fit in” with my new team at LMU.
Growing up, I knew I was different, and it took middle school and high school to be able to accept that difference. Acceptance, from my understanding, took the form of keeping my head down through high school, focusing on running and school.
Now I knew I was fast enough and could handle the transition from high school to Division I athletics. Running 60 miles a week was nothing but the standard, as well as eating clean, cross-training and auxiliary training. I was completely capable of it all. Nonetheless, I just was not sure if I could handle not being accepted for being gay.
At this point in my life, I was very much aware that I was different from my teammates. I only had previously met them through an online team meeting and even though I thought it went well, I couldn’t assume anything. Did my mannerisms during the team meeting reveal my sexual identity? Could teammates from different areas and cultures be accepting of who I am? What do I do if my teammates don’t accept me being gay?
I could accept myself in high school, because I had enough athletic ability to impress my male peers. They were able to accept me, but what if I didn’t have that anymore? At the end of the day, though, I always had my immediate family in the stands of my races cheering me on. But, my teammates were a different family. I feared I was about to be the new black sheep of the LMU running family. Suddenly, that same fear of being different in high school returned. I could keep my head down or I could take the opportunity presented in front of me — the ability to be whoever I wanted to be.
I decided to test the waters as I came in as a freshman. I decided to approach my new team in a fully authentic way, in true Daniel Vaca fashion. As I set up my dorm room, I made sure my Ariana Grande CD’s and Mariah Carey posters were visible to everyone who entered my room. And as soon as my cross-country season was over, I made it a point to get my nails done.
Although it felt like baby steps, I was amazed to never once encounter any negativity from my team. Rather (and to my surprise coming from heterosexual and cisgender men), I received compliments on my posters and nails, saying that they were cool. This is not to say that I was reliant on these compliments to validate who I am as a person, but they were really nice to hear.
As the year progressed, I felt more comfortable with being who I am around my team. I could relate to them as a runner, a runner who was respected as a contributor to the team culture and success, but also as a college student and friend. No longer were running and queerness mutually exclusive for me. I could exist and run authentically, and I still had this new family that was there for me, cheering me on during races and pushing me to perform to the best of my ability.
In most cases involving queerness, the validation when “coming out” is more appreciative when that person lies within the heteronormative standard. We can see this all the time when big-time athletes come out as gay. But when someone has known for a majority of their life that they don’t fall in line with the norm, they often get ridiculed by their peers for having the courage to accept and celebrate who they are.
Embracing who I was allowed me to be more rooted to my teammates and the greater LMU community. Entering college, I was able to find the courage to create a space for my own existence and blend that in with who I am as a Division I runner at LMU. My hope is that those who can relate to my story find that same courage within them. It may have only been recently that I was able to do this, but I hope to continue this journey, especially as I look forward to the upperclassmen cross-country and track seasons.
As a runner, we train to push our bodies to perform on a given day and time. Before every race, I remind myself to trust in the training. On the days where I don’t feel like putting in the work, I remind myself of the passion and feeling of racing fast. What makes and breaks a good runner from a great runner are the little things. Part of those little things is being comfortable in the uncomfortable
If I were to remain in the state I was used to high school, I do not believe I would have placed fifth at the 2022 USATF U20 Outdoor Championships. To find comfort in who you are if you are uncomfortable has pushed my performance and made me an overall happier person and I encourage others to do the same.
And just in case you ever tune in to the NCAA Division I Track and Field National Championships, I hope one of those times you see a guy with red and blue nail polish (LMU colors, of course) in the 3,000 meter steeplechase. You never know what queer athletes like me might accomplish.
Daniel Vaca is an upcoming third year at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, California. He is majoring in International Relations and a member of the Men’s cross- Country and track and field team. He grew up in Gilroy, Calif., where he ran for all four years in high school. He can be reached on Instagram @danielvacs.
Story editor: Jim Buzinski
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