For gay Duke diver, inclusion on his team wasn’t just an empty phrase


If football is the game of inches, diving is the sport of angles, where a literal 6-degree difference on your angle of entry separates you from the gold and walking home with nothing.

In my quest to qualify for the Olympic Trials in springboard diving, I needed to hit a score standard at one of the meets leading up to the Games. Making the Trials for Tokyo was my goal since narrowly missing out on the Rio Trials in 2016. All the pieces finally came together at the 2019 NCAA Zone Championship men’s three-meter springboard event.

In the Auburn University pool, I punched my ticket to Indianapolis, where the Trials will be held in June.

As I stood on the board before each dive, I went through a routine that is second nature to me:

(1) Check the fulcrum and check it again. And again. The fulcrum is the wheel on the side of the board that you set to determine how bouncy the board is. Having the setting just a few notches off your usual can send you flying across the pool instead of up into the air, and into the bottom of the leaderboard.

(2) Wipe my hands over and over until there is no moisture left on my palms. It is not as if a few drops of water will make me slip out of my rotation and belly-flop, but it is not completely out of the realm of possibility.

(3) Did I just imagine myself belly-flopping? Oh no, now I am definitely going to belly-flop. I better imagine myself doing the dive for 10s three times for good measure. OK, yeah, I got this.

(4) I take a peek down at the judges. Just fixing to do my best to impress them as if they have not seen this exact dive 1,691,724 and counting times. But that’s OK, because I’ve done this dive 23,406 times and they’re really going to like attempt number 23,407.

(5) Oh, hey! There’s my coach on the pool deck too! He’s smiling. OK, he’s right. You’ve been standing here too long. Better go now.

(6) Send a quick thought to the powers that be. I do not consider myself to be an incredibly religious or spiritual person, but it cannot hurt. OK, now I can go. I go.

Promo photo of Nathaniel Hernandez for the NCAAs in 2019.

Promo photo of Nathaniel Hernandez for the NCAAs in 2019.
Nat LeDonne / Duke Athletics

All this internal dialogue happens in about 10 seconds. Twice as long as the actual dive itself. Letting muscle memory take control, I hurdle down the board. I always try to envision that I am back at my home pool in Durham, N.C. at Duke and am much more relaxed at practice and I perform better when I am relaxed.

The day that I qualified for the Olympic Trials, I did not even make the podium. It was still one of the highlights of my career, more important to me than most of my gold medals. With the Trials set to be my final competition before I retire for real this time, looking back at my 13-year career has me feeling all the emotions.

With an original Trials date of June 2020, I was going to neatly wrap up that phase of life by graduating college, finishing my athletic career, and transitioning into graduate student life. As we have all been learning over the past year with the pandemic, nothing goes according to plan.

After a short meeting with our Duke coaching staff in March 2020, my career was over after the pandemic canceled the season and eventually postponed the Olympics. When I heard the news about the cancellation of the end of my final season, my first emotion was not sadness, but actually guilt.

In a moment, I thought back over my career and realized I missed the point. I was much too focused on the results and what went wrong. Some of my most vivid memories were what dives I did wrong at which meets and what I left unaccomplished. I vowed to do all that I could to get back on the boards somehow, someway and rewrite my ending.

With a year of testing, social distancing and masking, as well as the distribution of Covid-19 vaccines in the United States, I was finally granted permission to return to the boards. With a full year off, it has been intense to get back into Olympic Trials shape.

Despite the difficulty of remembering how to casually turn myself over 312 times in one go, I am approaching each dive with a new attitude. With no NCAA eligibility left, I am also representing myself for the first time. With this brief second life in my sport, I am aiming to reverse my old perspective.

This time around, instead of waiting to be happy until the competition is done, I go into every practice with a smile on my face. Having the pandemic take away part of my identity in an instant, I learned how privileged I am to do what I love every day. I am reminding myself of the little kid in me who just likes to flip. For perhaps the first time in my career, I learned that it will be OK if I do get last at the Trials.

Organized sports and I go way back. Since the age of 5, I have been running, jumping, and tumbling my way through four sports, but nothing gave me the athletics bug the way that diving did. It combined my great love of flipping, given by my early gymnastics days, with cooling off in the pool, a necessity in my 100-degree Texas childhood summers. Diving was not just something I did though, it also became a part of my identity.

Identity is a complicated thing. It comes and goes, changing like the waves in the pool I have become so familiar with. It is just as much situational as it is static. Labels are often defined by others for us to distinguish otherness, which changes form over time, yet they still become so deeply interwoven in our own sense of self. I wish that I could write something fresh and affecting on the strength personal identity brings, but I find it best to simply speak from my own relationship with my identity.

This was Nathaniel Hernandez’s “serious captain shot” Duke used to promote the 2019-20 season.

This was Nathaniel Hernandez’s “serious captain shot” Duke used to promote the 2019-20 season.
Nat LeDonne / Duke Athletics

I would say that I have been telling folks I am gay in some capacity since 2012. But what does that really mean? I never did a sappy YouTube video or a Facebook post. My announcement was much less conspicuous. Friends, family, and strangers everywhere would approach me with their meek, hushed question: “Are you gay?” like it was a swear word and they were going to get sent to the principal’s office. I would usually just shrug and reply with a simple, yet unsure, “Yeah, I guess.” But it took some time to get there.

Growing up in a small, religious, conservative suburb in Texas (and I use small relatively here because, for the uninitiated, everything really is bigger in Texas), I heard all the protests towards my “preferences” you can stereotypically imagine from other children, teammates, teachers, administrators and leaders in the local religious community against me personally and “my kind”. Like I was a member of an extraterrestrial species taking over the planet with The Gay Agenda™ — if only we could be that organized.

I will not mince words: It really, really sucked sometimes. But you know the most amazing thing? All athletes know the importance of practice, and each time I practiced saying those words it got easier to change my “Yeah, I guess” into a “Yeah, and what about it?”.

One of the blessings of wearing my sexuality on my mid-2000s Abercrombie & Fitch shirt sleeve was never worrying about attracting the wrong company and having to awkwardly break off the friendship later. I knew that my friends, straight and otherwise, had my back.

Even though I did not know at the time, I was a walking billboard and those around me got the message. Hanging around me for five minutes or even seeing me strut down the halls told them it was just part of the package — take it or leave it. Many left it. But where would I be without those wonderful friends who stayed?

Despite having loads of internal confidence and a good set of individual friends, I struggled with translating that swagger into larger crowds. I found myself trying to take up less space to avoid making others uncomfortable.

I am full of contradictions. It was being a member of my college swim and dive team where I finally learned to let others be uncomfortable instead of myself for a change. In large part to the example set forth by the Duke coaching staff that trickled down into inclusion by my teammates, having the support of my 60-person army in the swim and dive team pushed me to be who I am today. It is truly incredible how a person’s act of bravery in coming out can shape the lives of generations of athletes to come.

My college diving coach, Nunzio Esposto, is the shining star of the team. He has the perfect blend of pushing his athletes to the extremes to get results while still caring deeply about their personal lives outside of the pool and their overall well-being. No other coach in my entire athletics career could make me so sore in my abs from a killer core set and from rolling on the floor laughing in the same workout. He also happens to be an out and proud member of the community.

Nathaniel Hernandez with his college diving coach Nunzio Esposto.

Nathaniel Hernandez with his college diving coach Nunzio Esposto.

Looking for an LGBTQ+ coach was never on my priority list when going through recruitment. Like all student-athletes, I just wanted to go to a great school with a fun and successful team where I could better myself and have the best college experience. But, at the time of my recruiting trips around the country, Duke Swim and Dive had two out coaches on their staff and they were loved by everyone on the team.

Seeing, for the first time in my life, successful queer individuals being not just tolerated, but celebrated by those around them was life changing. Like, jaw-on-the-floor, they-can-do-that? Earth-shattering. And I wanted in.

Once I was in and living the dream, doing Duke was not always easy. The institution has a reputation for “effortless perfection” among its student body. I got sucked right into the trap of being involved in at least six clubs, four jobs, two organizations and one varsity sport in between being a student. On all the hard days, I always had my team that got me through the darkest moments. It pains my heart each time to hear that student-athletes on other athletic teams, even at Duke, do not receive the same support as I did due to the identity I share with them.

Looking back at my four years, I think I left no Gothic stone unturned on the beautiful campus by my participation in campus groups to serve as a role model to as many other students as I could. Inspired by the wave of support I had from my own team, I wanted to pass the torch of inclusivity onto the next generation in the realms of academics, social life, and athletics. Proudly, I can say that I did all that I could to make that desire realized.

Among other hats I wore, I taught as a teaching assistant for an introductory psychology course, worked as a resident assistant in the campus housing system to provide diverse and cross-culturally enriching events for students, and served as president of Duke’s campus chapter of Athlete Ally, a nonprofit seeking to end homophobia and transphobia in sport.

Sport is a microcosm of society. It holds value and inherently serves as a space for entertainment and social commentary alike. Little acts of inclusion in the sport bubble go a long way in shaping the greater culture outside of it.

For example, with the devastatingly increasing number of anti-trans in sports legislation up for debate around the country, the athletics community has a unique opportunity to showcase full acceptance of trans youth for the world. And these laws model how trans and non-binary folks are policed and excluded from all parts of society, including sport. Thousands of kids around the country are watching their state representatives debate the fairness of their existence. That is what “team” they are learning from. I am so thankful that I was on a true, winning team of character.

Nathaniel Hernandez executing a dive at the Duke vs. North Carolina dual meet in 2019.

Nathaniel Hernandez executing a dive at the Duke vs. North Carolina dual meet in 2019.

I owe much to my athletic career. For as much as I put into it, I gained a lot back. Sure, I picked up some cool party tricks like being able to do a backflip on command, but I also gained an external confidence that will stay with me for the rest of my life. I cannot say that about the backflip. It is truly incredible how much I have changed as a person as a direct result of being fostered in a healthy, supportive environment.

Coming out can be scary. Everyone comes out on a different timeline, but I encourage readers to think of the power you have over your own narrative.

Coming out, when you are ready, is the first step forward to showing those around you that you are willing to be that support for someone else. For them, it means the world. And just when you think that no one will support your decision, I will still be here.

Nathaniel Hernandez, 23, graduated with High Distinction from Duke University in 2020. Among other campus organizations, he served as a two-time captain of the varsity swimming and diving team and as president of the campus chapter of Athlete Ally from 2018-20. He is currently a Pharmacology PhD student in Duke’s Department of Pharmacology and Cancer Biology. He can be reached by email ([email protected]), Instagram or Twitter.

Story editor: Jim Buzinski

If you are an out LGBTQ person in sports and want to tell your story, email Jim ([email protected])

Check out our archive of coming out stories.

If you’re an LGBTQ person in sports looking to connect with others in the community, head over to GO! Space to meet and interact with other LGBTQ athletes, or to Equality Coaching Alliance to find other coaches, administrators and other non-athletes in sports.



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