Cooper Robinson graduated from Texas Christian University (TCU) in 2015 with a bachelor of science degree in geography and cartography. But that day almost didn’t come about. As a Division I athlete, a swimmer for TCU’s Horned Frogs, Robinson was in the process of committing suicide when he finally came face-to-face with the realization that he couldn’t change the fact he was gay and instead of dying because of it, he chose to live.
Brian Patrick: Thank you for sharing your story with Compete readers, Cooper. Why do you think it’s important for others to know about this?
Cooper Robinson: I think my story is one that other LGBTQ athletes have experienced. It’s a dark story but it is also filled with hope. A lot of LGBTQ athletes go through depression while struggling to find out who they are. I want my story to help inspire others to not be afraid of being who they were born to be.
BP: Tell us about how you originally got involved in swimming.
CR: I grew up in Katy, Texas and my parents thought swimming would be a good summer activity, something to do. But I really started to love swimming when I tried out for a summer league after eighth grade and decided to swim throughout high school.
BP: What was it that drew you to TCU in the first place?
CR: I got some advice from previous TCU swimmer Josh Bagby. I visited and liked the team atmosphere along with the academics. It felt like it was the perfect fit for me. I also felt good with long-time head coach Richard Sybesma. He motivated me to race to my full capacity before every race. Having him tell me to “Go out, have fun, you know how to swim this,” helped calm my nerves and clear my head before I’d race. That was really helpful when I’d get stressed before a meet.
BP: What is it that makes you love sports so much, Cooper?
CR: I love sports because for me personally, it provides an escape from the stresses of life. Whenever I’m in the pool I’m able to push everything else away and focus on my workout. I love the competitive nature of sports as well. That little bit of pressure makes competing fun. I love being in the water and swimming is still a huge part of my life. I enjoy working out in general. I always love trying new forms of working out, like spinning, running or trying new lifting exercises. I enjoy coaching the sport as well. It’s a rewarding process to be a part of a swimmer’s journey through the sport. I also enjoy hanging out with friends, paddle boarding and hiking.
BP: During your time at TCU you earned lots of swimming honors. What do you consider your greatest athletic achievement? And what do you consider your greatest personal achievement?
CR: For me athletically, it was being an NCAA qualifier, a U.S. Olympic trials qualifier, a TCU record holder and TCU’s first Big 12. Personally, it’s being able to come to terms with being gay. It was a long road that challenged everything I knew. And after countless struggles over many years, I was finally able to accept myself 100 percent.
BP: You said at the beginning that your story is dark but filled with hope. Tell us about your coming out experience, Cooper.
CR: I had been bullied growing up, and I had locked away those feelings of being bullied for a long time. By the time I got to high school I knew I couldn’t talk openly, I couldn’t let anyone know I was gay for fear that the on-going bullying would only get worse. I didn’t feel safe or comfortable sharing my secret and I wouldn’t talk much around people because I didn’t want to sound or come off as gay. Swimming was what distracted me but I still felt broken inside, like something was missing. I didn’t want to be known as the gay swimmer and I didn’t want to face any potential discrimination from my family, friends or teammates. I still didn’t feel safe, even in college.
In my junior year at TCU I was in the school library doing homework when my past 10 years of trying to deal with my sexual identity hit me. I just told myself that I had to finally face the fact that “I am gay.” It was who I was – I had to own it. I spent the rest of the night trying to figure out what my future as a gay athlete would look like.
BP: How did you wind up handling this final recognition that you were gay and nothing could change that?
CR: That same semester I became friends with a classmate who I found out later was also gay. One night we were doing homework together and I decided to come out to him. There was such a sense of relief that I could finally open up to at least one person. He actually became a sort of mentor, helping me begin to be more open to people. Although I still feared being disowned by other people, I slowly came out of my shell and noticed I was getting happier.
As I met other gay people, I was more open about being gay. But unfortunately, it all backfired. The summer before my senior year at TCU I fell into a deep depression, shutting myself off from the world. I didn’t sleep, I lost weight and my swimming career suffered tremendously. After the swim season was over I decided to take a break from everything and spend some time at home.
I hoped that everything would change when I went back for my senior year but that didn’t happen. My worst fear was realized! My teammates and other friends found out that I was gay and I was forced to go through the coming out process without being ready to deal with it. I was terrified and didn’t know how to handle it all. There were girls who came up to me and said, “You’re the gay swimmer,” and then laugh and walk away. I felt like my heart broke in my chest. My fear of coming out combined with the sadness I was experiencing on top of my depression pushed me over the edge. I was tired of being lonely and unhappy to the point that I couldn’t function any more.
That night I sat in my room and thought about many things. Next to me was a bottle of prescription pills I knew could end all the sadness. I had taken about four pills when – in the face of death – I realized there had to be some way to get around all the pain, some other option than to die. I decided I was just going to have to face my fears whether or not I wanted to. But I knew I wasn’t strong enough to do it on my own. So I told my roommate about the heartbreak I’d been living with and that I didn’t know what to do about it.
He was great. After we talked for awhile we decided it would be best if we told my coaches everything. I was scared to death walking to the coaches’ offices as thoughts like “will I be kicked off the team” or “will I lose my scholarship” played in my mind. I ended up telling my coach everything and soon we were all crying. All of my coaches embraced me with their support and caring. In that moment as so many of my fears subsided, I realized that it was OK to feel comfortable with myself. Something changed – I didn’t care what people thought of me anymore. I was able to be more open with myself and the rest of my swim team. Since then I have felt nothing but support from them.
BP: That’s a powerful story, Cooper. It takes a lot of courage to choose to live and it takes even more courage to go public with your story. What did you learn as a result of what you went through? What are the lessons or advice you’d pass on to others who are contemplating coming out, especially athletes?
CR: My coming out experience helped me realize that just because people in high school had different opinions about what being gay means, it doesn’t mean the rest of the world is like that. Yes, without question there is real discrimination toward LGBTQ people. But I truly believe that things are getting better.
I am not afraid to be open about who I am now. I am confident that this is who I was born to be.
Because of all that happened to me, I was able to find the confidence to come out to my family. Since I told them I was gay I have received nothing but love and support from my family and I am blessed to have that in my life.
I believe it’s important to be who you are, not to pretend to be something you are not. I’ve learned that if you’re honest with yourself, that honesty has a positive impact on the sport you play. I believe everyone should be treated equally no matter who they love and where they come from. I hear different stories from other athletes about their coaches treating them differently in a negative way because they were gay or for other factors. I think that is ridiculous.
If you aren’t accepting or willing to change how you feel about a certain issue then you have no business being in the athletic world. It will only harm the athlete in the end. Just remember that even when life may seem unbearable, it does get better. I just had to hold on through the dark times. And because I did, I emerged from all of it stronger. I emerged a fighter.
BP: On behalf of all Compete readers, I want to thank you for sharing your story, Cooper. It really is filled with hope for those who read and share it!
By Brian Patrick
Photos courtesy of Cooper Robinson