By Dirk Smith, M.Sc, SDL (He/Him)
My return to the sport of swimming came when I turned 20 and I was looking for my place in a greater community. By the time I dipped back into the pool, I thought I knew all about myself but it turns out I didn’t know anything. One thing I did know, I was gay and proud of it. The self assurance I had in my own sexual orientation wasn’t without struggle, and returning to the sport after a long hiatus helped me learn more about who I was as a person. This journey has brought me everything from national gold medals, Gay Games medals, graduate school and even life in another country.
It is a story I never get tired of sharing, because it was the first time I truly felt comfortable in my life. However, that is not the story I am going to share with you today for #NationalComingOutDay. Instead I would like to share with you the lesser known story of why I quit swimming in the first place.
When I was in elementary school, my parents struggled to help me find a sport that I liked, we tried everything from soccer, basketball, track, football and even baseball. Nothing worked and we all learned I did not have a thing for team sports. My parents however still insisted that I be involved in some kind of sport. On my own I asked, “what about swimming?” given that my mom used to take me with her to the rec center where I would swim while she did an aerobics class, so I was already used to getting in the pool. From there I joined the Broomfield Barracudas around age 10 and started my journey in competitive swimming. I loved swimming, but I was also obnoxious. I was the kid that loved to wear speedo briefs while everybody else wore jammers (it’s a swim thing). I even convinced my mom to buy me a “I swim for the speedos” shirt, I didn’t fully understand what that mean in terms of my sexuality, all I knew is I liked checking out my teammates in speedos.
I started to become restless with swimming however, discouraged by my lack of progress as well as bullying on my team, I started to lose my love for the sport. I didn’t know why but I knew there was something more I didn’t quite understand. After every practice, I would walk home and stop by the library on my way to try and find some answers. It wasn’t until I found some gay themed movies in the DVD section that I found myself interested… very interested. Every day after that I would look for DVDs, books, magazines, you name it to satisfy my growing curiosities.
I began to understand and I quite enjoyed it. After practice one day at 14, a teammate asked me if I was willing to “help him out” as it were and had my first real sexual encounter with someone else. It was one of the most thrilling experiences of my life as we found a hidden bathroom in a quiet section of the facility. After the movies and books, I read, enjoying the experience I realized that yes, I was gay. My teammate did as well, however his response was quite different. After that encounter he pulled back and begun bullying and harassing me significantly for being gay. Looking back, I could tell he was scared and didn’t want to accept it for himself.
From there I became frustrated, embarrassed, and felt ashamed as the bullying only served to fuel others on the team as well. I quit the team and swimming just as I finished 8th grade, I just couldn’t handle it anymore. Like any teenager, I was an emotional wreck of confusion, hormones, lust and all sorts of craziness. One thing was clear though, I am gay and I certainly wasn’t going to let anybody else make me live otherwise. Shortly after quitting the team, I decided to come out to my mom as well.
I am very grateful and fortunate to have such loving parents as they have always shown me support. At 14 I had heard the stories of kids getting kicked out of their parents’ house and disowned for being gay. I was expecting the worse but I was relieved to learn that the wasn’t necessary. Coming out so young was certainly challenging, having to face a lot of issues with bullying in school and not being able to have the dating life of all my classmates. However, it also helped me to grow and strengthen in the uncertainty of being a teenager, it helped me establish a sense of who I am. Even if it was just for myself.
Reflecting back on this experience with my teammate, I realized that he was victim of a religious upbringing that put him at odds with the internal desires he had felt from within but was trying to suppress. I have never seen or heard from him again, nor do I care too. Like many youth of my generation, I left my sport because of the discrimination and bullying that I experienced. During that time, swimming no longer became fun and it had a negative affect on my mental health.
Yet, years later swimming became my salvation, to pick me up and carry me forward during a time in my life when I needed it most. National Coming Out Day was created to combat fear and discrimination of LGBTQIA+ people by celebrating our stories and being ourselves. It is an important day of self reflection and creating awareness so that we can all move toward building a more inclusive and accepting society.
Picture courtesy of me! 🙂