Who Will Be Swimming’s Jason Collins?

Commentary by Jeff Commings

PHOENIX, Arizona, May 1. WHEN Jason Collins made news Monday as the first openly gay professional athlete in the Big Four sports in the United States, I was elated. My emotions surfaced not only because Collins decided to come out and make his sexuality public, but because the most popular basketball player in the world, Kobe Bryant, tweeted full support.

As the day drew on, I wondered if this would start a tidal wave of coming-out announcements. I hoped for a re-creation of one of the climactic scenes from Spartacus, in which a crowd of athletes would stand up and say “I'm gay” for their teams and the world to hear. Like someone breaking a major barrier in swimming, you only need one person to do it before it starts to become a common occurrence.

Will we see this in swimming sometime soon? Closeted gay athletes have been a part of USA Swimming's national team since at least 1984, including a few Olympians. I know some of those athletes, and they have told me they made a conscious decision to wait until their retirements from the sport to be a publicly gay man or woman. I went through my career as a closeted athlete on the USA Swimming national team as well. I wanted to come out many times in my early 20s, but did not do so because I feared a backlash from teammates and coaches that would have a negative impact on my performance in the pool.

As it turned out, I did not have the swimming career I knew was possible because the mental anguish of not coming out was affecting me physically. I was also hoping, like Collins, that someone else would make a coming-out statement, thereby cushioning the blow for me. But no one did.

Swimming is a big sport in the United States in terms of membership. Millions of people take to the pool on thousands of swim teams every day, and there are bound to be more out gay athletes on those teams than can be counted on two hands. That's probably true in basketball as well. While Collins might not be the first openly gay basketball player in the entire sport, he is the first professional to come out. We do not have an openly gay swimmer on the USA Swimming national team. Is it time that we had one?

I have heard people use “gay” in a negative connotation on the pool deck many times, but I have never heard anyone talk badly specifically about gay people. That is a sign that an openly gay national team swimmer would be welcomed in this sport. And that goes for coaches, too. I can count on one hand the number of out gay coaches in swimming in the United States, and I think that needs to increase as well. However, the recent wave of coaches arrested for child pornography or pedophilia could be a major reason why a coach would feel the need to stay in the closet. An unfair stereotype of gay adult men is that they are all pedophiles. Unfortunately, even the most harmless gay coach will be viewed through that stereotype, and I can understand a coach preferring life as the “confirmed bachelor” over instantly-presumed child stalker.

In no way am I forcing anyone to come out after reading this article. Publicly coming out is a personal thing and must be done when the person is absolutely ready. But when they are ready, we are ready.

The Netherlands, a country light years ahead of the United States in terms of social acceptance, already has dealt with an openly gay swimmer on their Olympic team. Johan Kenkhuis helped the Dutch win a silver medal at the Athens Games in 2004, one of a reported 11 openly gay athletes in all sports at that Olympics.

We will have to wait a few months for the start of the next basketball season to find out how Collins will be treated. How do you think a professional swimmer will be treated if he or she came out now, less than two months before the start of the national championships and in a sport that doesn't really have an off-season period? I can't imagine my conversations with him or her would be any different than they are now, and I hope every member of the swimming community shares that sentiment.

Click here to listen to Jeff Commings' appearance on Fox Sports Radio's show with Rob Dibble and Amy van Dyken.

Jeff Commings' autobiography, Odd Man Out, is available in paperback and on Kindle.

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