Go home or come out?
June 25, 2006 11:42 AM   Subscribe

Gay athlete needs life advice--should I keep training at the elite level or move on and get a "real life"?

I'm at a crossroads. I'm an American but have been studying abroad and finally finish school this summer. I can either go back to the US and devote another two years to my sport and try to make the Olympic team, or "grow up", stay abroad and enter the working world. It seems like it should be an obvious choice to keep training, but there's a lot to consider and I'd love some advice.

I'm gay and have finally started to come out to my current teammates after our competition season ended. Most have been really supportive. One doesn't really 'get' it having known me so long acting straight, and there are others who now know I'm gay, but we haven't talked about it so it's slightly awkward--I want to tell them in a private moment but haven't had the chance and don't want to make a big deal of it.

On the teams I've been on, I've never wanted being gay to be the first thing people know about me. I want to be judged on my work ethic and ability, and just be one of the guys. We had a guy on the team this year who was out but didn't make it through the season (because of injury), and he was treated differently--not badly, but differently--and I didn't want that.

I've been doing my sport for a long time, and have competed at a high, international level. If I go back to the US and move to the national team training center, I'll have a chance at making the Olympic team. But I don't know if it will be a great chance. I've been able to do well in the past because I have a good aerobic capacity and work ethic, but I've always been much shorter than everyone else, and this makes me struggle with some aspects of the sport. For the past two years I've felt like I've plateaued; I've been trying extremely hard to improve and haven't gotten much better.

If I go back to the States and train with the squad, I'd like to continue gradually coming out to people, start bringing boys to social events, that sort of thing. The athletes, many of whom I already know, I don't think would care at all. But the coach might be another story. He's probably professional enough to not let it be an issue, but I can't be sure (he has been known to bring up peoples' personal lives during training sessions to rile them up), and I don't know of any guys who have been out during his tenure. And that might be enough to keep me in the closet.

The dream has always been to keep training and see how far I can get with it. But now I really like my life abroad and don't want to leave my friends here. Assuming I can get a decent job and the visa issues work out, part of me really wants to stay, become a grown up and have more serious relationships with boys. But then I flip-flop--while I don't love my sport the way I used to, I do still feel something for it.

I anticipate some of the responses could be "go for it, you're only young once, you have the rest of your life to work, you don't want to regret it in the future..."--that's what people I'm not out to say. But right now I don't think I will regret it. I obviously don't want to sell myself short, and I have done well in the past, but I've been struggling for a while and don't know if I have what it takes. I'm finally admitting to myself that I've been doing the sport for so long not just because I love to compete--I also like being in close proximity with a lot of fit, good looking guys.

So what should I do, keep training or move on?
posted by anonymous to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (18 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Keep training! If your coach has a problem with you being gay, I can only imagine that s/he wouldn't care if you were an asset to the team.
posted by k8t at 11:48 AM on June 25, 2006

I also like being in close proximity with a lot of fit, good looking guys.

God bless you. be discreet about it and rock on. I'm sure you'll find even closer promixity with more than a few of these guys pretty soon
posted by matteo at 11:50 AM on June 25, 2006

Tough decision and ultimately one that I think only you can make. Your last paragraph says to me to that you may be ready to move on. However, if I were you I wouldn't let the coming out issue play a part in my decision. If a bunch of your teammates already know you're gay, is it realistic to think that the others (and your coach) may not already know?

Seems to me the ideal would be to stay connected with the sport but not necessarily compete. Is that possible? Could you perhaps become an assistant coach?
posted by gfrobe at 12:07 PM on June 25, 2006

I gotta say that no matter if you're gay or straight or celibate your personal life will evantually cause issues like these. I'm a woman in a professional environment with a long term SO who is a ski bum/ constructon worker. Do I care? no. Do some of my supervisors think it reflects on me? yes. Other people undergo a similar censure in the workplace/ social scene when they marry too quickly or divorce or have a child out of wedlock (especially women- a friend of mine is going through that right now and ouch! half her workmates don't even look her in the eye anymore).

As a long standing team athlete the team feeling is probably really important to you, more so than most people but the kind of bond you have with your teammates in adolescence and college is impossible to maintain as you age and other relationships intrude anyway. So while I'm not trying to minimise the issue of you being gay, know that this pulling away would have happened to an extent anyway.

So what am I saying? Go on and train because it is only two years out of your life and that's nothing and because you owe it to yourself to try. Accept that some people will have a problem with you for who you are and that there's nothing you can do about it. The people who really care about you will still care about you, and you'll still be the same athlete. I'm sure you won't be the only openly gay athlete at the Olympics!
posted by fshgrl at 12:25 PM on June 25, 2006

1. Go for it. If you don't you'll always wonder what if.

2. Anyone's sexuality in sport is IMHO on an needs-to-know basis. I like to hope no one would care. I was a member of an elite sports club where more than a handful of the male members were gay (some out, some not). People were cool with it. I think being a mixed-sex club helped.

3. Who cares that you enjoy being around fit guys? I started a sport so I could someday be better than one of my exes exes. Stupid motivations abound. Whatever works.

4. Height... who cares? Let's say your sport was rowing (mine was). I'm 5'3". Luckily technique counts for a lot. And there are lightweight internationals. Loads of people with medals are my size (they're just a lot, lot more talented and hardworking than I was prepared to be). Size is an excuse you're giving yourself.

Or as a friend of mine says, if it was easy, we'd all have gold medals.

5. Europe will always be there. If you do well in your sport, any future employer will happily accept your employment lapse.
posted by methylsalicylate at 12:27 PM on June 25, 2006

It finally took falling in love with my partner to open my eyes to how miserable I had been all those years in the closet.

Coming out to my family was hard as hell. Took me years. I came out to my brother first on a quiet ride up a ski lift — and I couldn't say anything to my mum and dad for another two years. I come from a bring-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps, working-class background where that stuff is not encouraged, to say the least.

When I did come out to my folks, they were initially reticent but grew in a quick time to be very supportive of me, my relationship with my partner, and of my partner. I feel very fortunate about the people in my life. If I was religious, I would say I am amazingly blessed, not only for those I love, but for the perspective I've earned to appreciate that love.

If you are ready to live your life on your terms and really and truly be a happy and complete human being, you have to be who you are and not apologize for it, and not see who you love as an either/or situation — whether or not the coach/parents/President/etc. like it.

I can't guarantee you a happy ending, but I suspect you may have to decide to simply make that leap, consequences be damned. You only get one go in this world, and your level of happiness and misery is largely up to you in that short span of time you're given.

On the other hand, you may decide you are happier protecting your career, and leave your personal life on the side. Some people do that and are happiest living their work. That may be you, but from your question, it sounds like you're ready for a change.

In any case, if you're genuinely able to compete in the Olympics at an elite level, then your coach is unlikely to be the final arbiter of who gets on the team.

Take a risk! That's life — don't be one of those sad fuckers who look back over the decades and regret the compromises they've made in their wasted lives!
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:31 PM on June 25, 2006

Anon, your lengthy question/commentary encapsulates a lot of the mixed motivations I've heard from other gay people regarding "coming out." All I can say on that subject is that, at root, you can't "manage" truth, except by lying.

Regarding the train/don't train question, I think you've got to decide if taking a shot at the Olympic experience is important enough in your life to put the rest of your life substantially on hold for the next couple of years. If the answer to that is anything other than a clear yes, don't bother, and don't take up the resources other talented athletes with greater commitment could readily use. The training spot Michelle Kwan took up during preparations for Torino could have arguably been better used by others, but she insisted on being on the team, for a last try at a gold medal. That's pretty selfish, unsportsmanlike behavior, and not in keeping with the Olympic ideal, although her decisions were probably also heavily influenced by NBC and sponsorship pressures.

If you don't have the ancillary pressures of celebrities like Kwan, and aren't gung ho, why not take the high road, and give someone else their shot? You'll have a lot more time for managing your personal life, and launching a career.
posted by paulsc at 1:53 PM on June 25, 2006

I think that the decision to come out and the decision on whether to go home & train for the Olympics are two different things. You can come out whether you stay abroad or come home (and I hope you do). Whether you wish to spend the next couple years training for the Olympics is really a decision that only you can make, but it should not be connected to whether you come out.

I understand that if affects how your teammates and coach perceive you. But if they treat you differently after you come out, that's a reflection on them -- not on you. Your obligation to yourself is to be true to yourself. That includes being true to your identity. It also includes being true to your true desire regarding your sport and your life, and only you know what that desire is.

FWIW, when I was coming out in the workplace, my approach was simply to act as if everybody already knew. I didn't make a big issue of it. I put my partner's photo on my desk. When people asked me how my weekend was, I said that my partner and I did thus-and-such. He sent me flowers at work. I simply acted as if it all was quite normal -- and I worked in a corporate IT environment -- and it became so.

Best wishes and luck to you, whatever you decide. I'm pulling for you.
posted by Robert Angelo at 1:56 PM on June 25, 2006

Clarification: when I said "I hope you do" just now, I meant I hope you come out, not that I hope you come home...
posted by Robert Angelo at 1:58 PM on June 25, 2006

"I think that the decision to come out and the decision on whether to go home & train for the Olympics are two different things. You can come out whether you stay abroad or come home (and I hope you do). Whether you wish to spend the next couple years training for the Olympics is really a decision that only you can make, but it should not be connected to whether you come out."

I think this is wise. I am not gay, so you can take my advice with a full salt shaker, but I think you should come out -- but also stay in training, for now. As someone said above, it's only two years, Europe will still be there afterward, but you would probably always wonder what it would have been like to be an Olympic athlete. Of course, I wonder that too :) , but I never actually had a shot at it like you do.

And for what it's worth, I think many athletes go through motivation crises. I was a skater and I know I did. Usually just after the competition season, when I would wonder if I really wanted to continue, whether my coach was driving me so insane that I should quit, why I was spending so much time skating when I could be doing other things, etc. And then when the time came to buckle down again I wanted to skate again.
posted by litlnemo at 2:49 PM on June 25, 2006

Go for it.
posted by Count Ziggurat at 4:11 PM on June 25, 2006

keep training at the elite level or move on and get a "real life"?

i don't know what sport you do, or how good you are at it, but the notion of competing at anything on the highest levels is far and away more "real" than anything most people experience.

to be really good at something, no matter what it is, is magical. you shouldn't toss it away because it's not normal and you're worried about what a 9-5 manager might think, or because you joined up for all the hot boys.

you've only got one youth to tell stories about, don't waste it!
posted by sergeant sandwich at 4:39 PM on June 25, 2006

Even with the worst-case scenario that you don't make the Olympic team, twenty years from now would you rather say you were in training for the Olympics, or that you could have trained for the Olympics but never took the chance?
posted by schroedinger at 4:40 PM on June 25, 2006

Is there any appeal to you of being a trailblazer of sorts, i.e. an out Olympian?

Other than having the possible satisfaction of being a role model for gay athletes to come, I also see the two elements of your decisions as unrelated.

(The aging athlete in me says, you gotta go for it! btw)
posted by nonmyopicdave at 4:45 PM on June 25, 2006

Do you have something else to fill that competitive urge inside of you? That is the hardest part about quitting a sport is finding something that equals that high you get. If you can find something to fill that void then I would suggest staying. You seem to already have doubts about your ability to compete at the high level. I imagine those doubts will grow even higher when you are away from your friends.
posted by Hypharse at 4:47 PM on June 25, 2006

My impression is that when you're training for the Olympics, you don't exactly have a lot of time for a social life. (Correct me if I'm wrong.) So I would say that the "bringing boys to social events" wouldn't be all that much of a problem.

I think the question here is more an ethical one than anything else. Do you really feel like you have a reasonable shot at making the team? If you do, then probably you should go for it. If, on the other hand, you are thinking this is your only chance, and you're going to take it simply because you won't ever get another, then that strikes me as a bit selfish.

I realize that at your age two years seems like a lifetime, but, really, it's not. The real challenge is going to be after the Olympics (or the trials, anyway) because you're going to have to deal with all the guys throwing themselves at you for, frankly, the wrong reasons. You'll have the challenge of weeding them out and finding a partner who is attracted to you for yourself, not your medals and your muscles. A couple years more maturity might actually help you in that process.
posted by La Cieca at 6:30 PM on June 25, 2006

I think that the things you are struggling with are common to folks who are striving to reach the very top level of whatever their field is. When you are trying for the very top, part of the process is ruthless self-examination. What fits with my identity as an Olympic-quality athlete? What has to be thrown out?

A lot has to be thrown out.

Your identity as a sexual person and a loving person, however, doesn't have to be. Your coach may use a lot of techniques to try to motivate you to your top, but mocking you about your sexuality isn't going to be one of them.

The question you're asking yourself, I think, is really whether or not the stress of "coming out" - of people judging you on your sexual identity - is going to impair your training and your ability to reach your highest level. In a way you're creating a pre-fab excuse for failure, should it come to pass.

But it's not a very good excuse. Your coach probably isn't going to discriminate against you because you're gay - that'd be a career-ending violation of the law, and not in his interests either. And maybe this is the New Yorker in me speaking, but honestly? No one really cares if you're gay. Unless they think they can use it as a psychic wedge to crack you and beat you, maybe.

Have a little ego integrity, recognize and accept and appreciate that you are a whole person with one life and one identity, and then pull yourself together and get down to the business of achieving your best. If that were to be Olympic grade, it'd be pretty exciting, don't you think?
posted by ikkyu2 at 10:19 PM on June 25, 2006

Don't do it. Stay in Europe. Here's why:

But now I really like my life abroad and don't want to leave my friends here.

...while I don't love my sport the way I used to, I do still feel something for it.

...Right now I don't think I will regret it. I obviously don't want to sell myself short, and I have done well in the past, but I've been struggling for a while and don't know if I have what it takes.

Those words sound to me as if you really want to quit but you're just working your way up to it. I know and you know and others at MeFi know as well that when you're struggling to perform at the highest levels possible, passion and commitment aren't just desireable qualities, they're the end-all-be-all. That's it. Once you lose the desire, you start to lose the skills.

I don't think this has anything to do with you coming out. I think that you're using that as a smokescreen to come up with an easily-justifiable reason to quit in the sport -- after all, what could be more honorable than quitting something because you want to pursue exploring your sexuality and being out and open in a community where who you are is valued, not swept under the rug? But the two issues are entirely different.

I think you need to see a therapist who specializes in athletes so you can spend a few hours over a week or two discussing all these issues and exploring whether or not moving forward makes sense. They can give you some perspective and insight and be a neutral voice and tell you what's bullshit and what's real. Don't just blindly stay in the sport because you know that's what everyone expects of you. Please.
posted by incessant at 12:58 AM on June 26, 2006

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