This article has taken me two years to write but is 10 years in the making, and I couldn’t be more excited.
If you were to tell me 10 years ago that I would be sitting in a coffee shop in Boise, Idaho, writing an article about my experience as a gay athlete I’m not sure I would have believed you. The built-up anxiety within me revolving around the fact that I was gay was alone enough to keep me quiet.
I was asked to share my story with Outsports two years ago, initially said yes and then realized I wasn’t ready. In that chapter of my life I was out as a gay person to my family, friends and peers. I was even dating my first boyfriend. I felt as though I was secure with myself and had fully come to terms with my sexuality.
Upon starting to write my story for Outsports, an unexpected wave of insecurity and anxiety hit me. I began asking myself questions.
How will writing this article affect my experience participating in a collegiate track program?
Will I instantly be known as “the gay kid” on the team and is that something I want to be known as?
Will friends or family that I have yet to tell be upset with me for not sharing my sexuality with them before sharing it with the world?
All of these thoughts made me realize I was not ready. Two years later, I believe that I have grown significantly as a person, an athlete and as a member of the LGBTQ community.
The idea of sharing my experiences and story with the world is now something that I am not only excited about, but is something that I am proud of.
If I can encourage one person to be more loving of themselves, then sharing my story is worth it. My goal is to inspire any other LGBTQ people to find love and acceptance in the world of sports.
Being from a small town like Belgrade, Montana, could very easily explain why I felt so fearful and anxious about accepting my sexuality. Homophobia ran rampant through my adolescent and young-adult stages of life.
Fortunately, I grew up in a loving and progressive household. I have a lesbian aunt and through her I learned from a young age that my entire family loved and supported her for who she was.
I knew I was gay early in my life, around 8 or 9, but didn’t truly understand what it meant. Seeing the response that my aunt received from my family, I did not have to worry about what it meant. I didn’t question that I had crushes on boys at school rather than girls. It just felt natural.
It wasn’t until the fourth grade that I started to realize that much of society was not accepting of these types of feelings and it was when I first experienced homophobia.
There was another student in my class who shoved me to the hallway floor while aggressively yelling the word “homo” at me. I remember feeling sad, but I wasn’t entirely sure why. It was more because of his aggression towards me than the actual word “homo.”
I told my teacher what happened and asked her what “homo” meant. She responded by telling me to ask my parents about it. The word “homo” stuck with me all throughout grade school as if it were written on my forehead.
Bullying was a common aspect of my life throughout high school. It is unfortunate, but too many LGBTQ youth experience bullying while growing up. The fear of being rejected burrowed deep within me.
As a response to this deeply rooted sadness, I began to isolate myself and suppress my truth to better fit the expectations of my peers. This isolation left me without any close friends for most of school.
It was not until I began to pursue running that I started to open up to people. Cross-country and track became the foundation of my life in the seventh grade. Not only did running allow me to form connections with people, it gave me a sense of accomplishment and purpose. It was clear that I was a naturally talented runner and wish I had known how far running would take me.
A coach makes a difference
At the beginning of every year there is a school-wide fall sports meeting that students and their parents attend to receive information about the upcoming sports seasons and how to sign up for them.
Despite my past experiences with running, I was attending that sports meeting to sign up to play basketball. My thought process was that if I participated in a more socially prestigious sport, the bullying would go down and my peer acceptance would go up. As you can probably imagine, football and basketball were far more acceptable for young men to participate in than cross-country or track and field.
There happened to be a new assistant coach for our school’s cross-country team that year. Our athletic director introduced him as Frank Jacques. The guy looked like a total goof and after seeing the mannerisms and physiques of the other sports coaches I remember specifically thinking, “No way in hell am I going to do cross-country now.”
Out of fear for my social acceptance and masculinity I attempted to quickly sneak out of the auditorium after the meeting concluded. Jacques was standing there blocking my exit.
“Hey!” he hollered. I froze. Surrounded by my peers whose judgment I so heavily feared, I was trying to brush off Jacques as quickly as possible.
“Are you coming out for cross-country this season?” he asked. “Uh, no, I am going to use this fall to really practice my basketball skills so that when winter comes around, I will be able to make the team,” I replied.
Jacques expressed a look of disbelief and he might as well have shouted “bullshit!” at me. “I promise you that if you run cross-country this season you will be the most fit guy on the basketball court,” he said. “I would even stay with you after practice to shoot hoops with you if you wanted.”
I was speechless. He didn’t just let me walk away. He wanted me to run for his team. I remember that feeling of being wanted, being valued by someone. I made the decision to run that season.
Little did I know that for the next four years, Jacques would play the lead role in both my journey as a runner as well as my acceptance of myself.
To this day, I’m not sure if he is aware of the impact that he had on my life as a young gay runner. He guided me through stupid mistakes and shaped my character to be more humble and genuine.
By the time I was a senior in high school, I had risen far beyond my own expectations. I was on pace to run for a Division I school, I had many leadership roles in multiple organizations and clubs and had surrounded myself with amazing people.
At this time, I had even entered my first relationship with another guy. His name was Dawson and he was also a runner. We became training partners and pushed each other to be not only be the best runners we could be but also helped each other to be more comfortable with our sexuality.
Jacques was the first person to casually bring up my sexuality with me. I had not even come out to him at this point. One day after a run he looked at me and nudged my shoulder with his elbow. With a slight grin, he asked, “Are you going to take Dawson to prom?”
I initially became flustered with emotion and fear. He knew that I was gay. He knew that Dawson and I were a couple (which was obvious if anyone watched our post-race embraces). But I then realized that he accepted me. No one had ever brought up my sexuality in such a casual way. It was incredibly liberating.
Slurs and some initial fears
My journey at Boise State University as a gay athlete started off sour. There were lots of aspects drawing me to Boise: the nationally prestigious running program, the city with a small-town feel and the abundance of outdoor activities.
During my senior year of high school, I took a visit to Boise State. I was in love within the first couple of hours there. The university was all that I had imagined my college experience would be. I clicked well with the team and coaching staff as well. One experience, in particular, became both the best and worst aspect of my visit.
The guys on the team all got together to take me to an Olive Garden for dinner. I felt so comfortable around all of them. We laughed, told stories, faked my birthday to get a free dessert, and even had a table of trained opera singers belt out an improvised “Happy Birthday.” I knew while I was sitting at that table that I wanted to be a Bronco.
Feeling like I was on top of the world, we left the Olive Garden and headed back to my hotel. I was in a car with three of the upperclassmen runners on the team. What happens next would severely impact the certainty that I had about coming to Boise State.
The three guys started an extremely homophobic and misogynistic conversation about past teammates. Each chimed in with incredibly degrading comments about their former teammates or even former friends who happened to be gay.
One of the guys proudly claimed that he abandoned a close friend after he came out as gay. You can probably imagine how I am feeling at this point. I am assuming that at the time they did not know I was gay.
Just when I thought the car ride couldn’t get any more miserable, the guys caught on to my noticeable discomfort. I had not said a word that entire ride. One of the guys turned to me and said, “Wait, you’re not gay are you?” My heart sank. Drowning in insecurity and fear I replied with a simple “no.”
Looking back at that situation breaks my heart. Not because of the hateful conversation taking place in that car but because I did not have the courage to stand up to them.
There is a philosophy that I try to guide my life using: a person will likely forget everything about you, but a person will never forget the way that you made them feel. I will never forget the way that those three people made me feel.
After being dropped off at my hotel I immediately went to my room. I cried a fair amount that night, trying to piece together how my visit could have gone from such a great experience to one of the worst experiences in my life. There was no way that I could have come here knowing how the leaders of the team felt about gay people.
After a lot of reflection, I made a decision that I think every person could learn from. Boise was what I wanted.
I felt a strong connection with most of the team, the coaching staff and the university. I came to the realization that I shouldn’t let the hate of a few impact my happiness or success and I believed that I would be both happy and successful at Boise State University.
There will always be hateful people in the world, there is nothing that you can change about that. What you can change however, is how you respond to that hate. I have built a life here that I love.
I would to thank the three people in the car ride for helping me grow as a person. I received a sincere apology from one of the guys in that group. All have since moved on from Boise State. My teammates, peers, coaches and university have all been incredibly supportive of who I am as a gay athlete. I would like to thank all of them for helping me get to where I am today.
I’m now in my third year at Boise State University and I am more excited than ever to be back with my team. After coming off my most successful track season yet, I have set some large goals for this upcoming season.
The concept of track and field is what draws me to the sport. The track doesn’t care what you look like, what color your skin is, whether you are gay or straight — all that matters is how badly you want to win.
When I am on the line, it is just me versus the clock and that is what I love about the sport. Competing as an openly gay athlete gives me the opportunity to represent something more than just myself.
I hope to encourage other LGBTQ+ people to not only participate in the world of sports but to be true to themselves in the process. In my personal experience as an athlete, self-acceptance and love have a huge impact on performance.
When I reached the point where I was confident in the fact that I was gay, my confidence as a runner grew as well.
If I could give any advice to other LGBTQ+ athletes I would say when you respect yourself, others will respect you. When you choose to be positive, your environment will become more positive as well. When you love yourself, others will love you too.
Jacob Grinwis, 20, is a junior at Boise State University. He is a major in Economics and aims to be a key part in the development of a business after he graduates. He is a middle-distance runner, specializing in the 800 and 1,500 meters. He can be reached by email at ([email protected]) or on Instagram (@jacob.grinwis)
Story editor: Jim Buzinski
If you are an out LGBTQ person in sports and want to tell your story, email Jim ([email protected]).