Gay athletes pushed to persevere at Sochi games

This year’s Olympics posed the tough decision of attendance to gay athletes. Essentially, they had to decide whether or not to allow their moral principles to overrule their athletic dedication. As an athlete, I have had to make similar decisions, and I’ve made the wrong one.

I’ve never been freer, more powerful, more blissfully alone. The water is a rush, my lungs burning, my muscles screaming, but I’m happy. There’s nothing like hearing your alarm go off at 4:30 AM so you can go lift weights. There’s nothing like keeping a muscle roller in your locker. There’s nothing like double two-hour practices a day. There’s nothing like a goggle tan and crunchy, green hair. There’s nothing like winning.

I miss it. I grew up in the pool, some of my earliest memories of breath-holding contests in the shallow end, my eyes burning with chlorine. Since I was seven, swimming became a more and more integral part of my life. Early sophomore year, I joined the most competitive and reputable swim team in the Bay Area. For the first three months, I never missed a practice. I was the slowest kid on the fastest team, but what I lacked in skill I made up for in heart.

Not to say that I was slow, by any means. My dedication served me well. Within six months, my 500 freestyle time dropped over 20 seconds. I qualified for Junior Olympics, and managed to shave off time until I was within 5 seconds of a Far Western, the most competitive swim meet before state sectionals. All the weight lifting, the 12,000 yard (7 and a quarter mile) practices, not to mention the unattended parties and neglected concerts and sleepovers had begun to pay off.

I got whooping cough at the beginning of July, as I was gearing up for my summer meet season. I refused to go to the doctor for fear of being diagnosed with something more than a cold, but finally agreed to go and get tested. Unfortunately, the checked positive box on the test form was not even close to the most disappointing moment of my week.

After a couple of days of rest and industrial strength cough syrup, I reentered the water. I had a meet that weekend that I was not about to miss due to something trivial, like lung fluid buildup. I had worked too hard and come too far. It was not an important meet, I was using it as practice for my upcoming competitions.

I dove in that day as I have done a thousand times. The first six laps came easily. The water flowed past me with relative ease, my breathing a little labored, but manageable. And then suddenly, it wasn’t. I turned my head to breathe, but nothing came in. I coughed underwater, involuntarily inhaling water and choking. I tried to breathe but nothing happened, the water in my lungs just seemed to sink deeper. I was beginning to get dizzy. Grabbing for the wall and half vomiting half exhaling water into the gutter, I coughed with such force that I felt a stabbing pain in my lower left ribcage that brought tears to my eyes. My coach and some spectators lifted me by my forearms onto the deck, where I gasped for air, a few (I hoped undetectable) tears mixing with the water on my face.

I cried in the car on the way home, and in the bathroom at the doctor’s office when they told me I had broken my rib. I knew what that meant, it meant time out. It meant taking it easy. It meant being out of the water. It meant getting slower, and losing my hard-earned progress.

When I came back for the fall season, I was slow. I was depressed, I was discouraged, I was off my game. Three weeks into the new season, my coach told me in the most loving way possible that I would have to swim with the younger, slower group until I was back in good enough condition to reasonably keep up. I was embarrassed about my weakness and how slow I had gotten. It’s junior year, and my workload was ramping up. I told myself I would take a break and revisit the issue later. Truthfully, I just didn’t want to think about it. Quitting, that is. Giving it up.

I think about it every day. My choice to give up was one of the worst ones of my life. I am more than glad that gay athletes at this year’s Olympics decided to attend. I wouldn’t wish the level of regret I feel on anyone. But I’m not gay. I don’t know what it’s like to be openly discriminated against day after day. I don’t know what it’s like to be afraid to hold hands with someone that I love. I do know what it’s like to want something so much that you can feel it in your bones. I know what it’s like to make sacrifices to pursue your passion. I know what it’s like to feel completely in your element. I know what it’s like to win. And so do the athletes at this year’s Sochi Winter Olympics, where gay “propaganda” and behavior are prohibited, and gay and lesbian individuals routinely prosecuted.

The Olympic games are designed to unite people and celebrate excellence and hard work regardless of identity. The Olympics aren’t about politics, and we need to protest Russia’s stance on gay athletes and their own gay population because the Olympics aren’t a political platform. We need these world-class athletes to unite in the face of adversity and share their common experience as a show of solidarity and teamwork. That’s what sports are about. That’s passion. That’s what it is to win.