How Olympic hopeful and national champion swimmer Tom Luchsinger wrestled with being gay in front of the cameras – and his mirror. The former Univ. of North Carolina standout shares his experiences in the closet.
April 2013. I wake up and look at the clock. 2:58 AM. I have a long day ahead of me.
I don’t have to be up for another two hours and five minutes for the first of three workouts. Yes, I’m that exact. In the wee hours of twilight my mind begins to race. I can feel my heart rate rising and my body beginning to perspire as I think, “You’re gay.”
Trying to ignore the thought I pick up the book sitting on my nightstand. Sometimes reading calms my mind and help me run away from this terrifying idea. Not this time. My internal dialogue proceeds to get more and more aggressive.
“You’re a fag. You’re a queen. You’re undeserving of love. You’re never going to amount to anything.”
After ruling out sleep – let’s be honest, no one is falling back asleep with that kind of thought process – I walk over to my desk where I begin to work. In addition to my athletic and academic responsibilities on campus, I’m an active member of the athletic department on four different committees that operate on campus. These organizations are dedicated to making the University of North Carolina the best public education institution in the country. They range from meetings with the many athletic directors, to bringing kids with cancer to sporting events, to helping freshman adjust to life in college and organizing community service opportunities for the varsity teams.
For most athletes, one of these responsibilities would have been daunting. Not for me – four wasn’t even enough.
After spending some time working, I look at the clock. 3:30 AM. That half hour felt like three days. Time crawls as I try to repress the conflicting thoughts in my head. The second I stop, my mind becomes active again.
I get up and walk to my master bathroom feeling defeated, worthless. Weak. I undress and get ready to jump in the shower. I look at my physique in the mirror. Nothing seems good enough. My lower abs aren’t as defined as my upper abs, giving my middle section a strange and disproportioned look. My chest isn’t big enough for my wide frame. My back is so swayed that my teammates nicknamed me “spineless,” something that feels pretty accurate as I live in silent shame.
You name it, I hate it about myself.
I jump in the shower. After washing and rinsing my body and hair, I towel dry and walk over to the dresser where I keep my sweats. I want comfort, not style, since I’m going to lie awake for another hour or so. As I open up my drawers, I look at the 12 ACC Medals, 10 All-American Certificates, three All-American Trophies, and ACC Men’s Swimmer of the Year accolades that have accumulated on top of my dresser. Four years of accomplishments glaring back at me, titles my teammates would kill for, hold no value to me.
“You are still a queen. You are still a fairy!”
Shaking my head I pull out my favorite North Carolina sweatshirt and some of my lifeguarding sweatpants. I put the sweats on and curl up in bed.
3:51AM. Seventy-two more minutes to kill.
I reach for the rosary beads hanging from my headboard. When my grandmother passed away, she left each of her grandchildren a string of rosary beads. Every morning I thought this would be the cure; Saying the rosary would make the thoughts go away. The prayers would make me a straight man, the man I wanted to be but couldn’t figure out.
As I lay in bed with my eyes closed, I begin saying the Hail Mary and Our Father. Praying the gay away. Or trying to, anyway. Seventy minutes of praying and nothing changes. I still have the nasty internal dialogue, I still hate every part of myself and I still feel worthless, unaccomplished.
5:03 AM. My alarm blares. I don’t need it. I never fell back asleep.
* * *
Winning my national title in June of 2013 changed my life. All of a sudden I was projected to make the 2016 Olympic Team. I had attention from fans, I had a sponsor, and I found a new responsibility to keep the swimming community updated on the majority of my life.
I hated social media, probably because I was terrified of being outed on the Internet. After becoming a professional swimmer it seemed that social media was going to be a necessary evil. I left USA Swimming Nationals that year with a Twitter account, an Instagram account and an updated Facebook page. Talk about social media overload!
My fear was not just limited to social media, it extended to the mainstream press. The mere sight of a camera or a photographer on the pool deck was enough to cause an interior panic so strong it would ruin my race. I was a small reason that these cameras were on the deck. Sure, photographers wanted pictures of the newest national champion. Swim fans wanted to see how I got ready for a race and how I strategized my races.
Yet I always wondered, “Why would anyone want to take a picture of me? Why would anyone want to film me? I’m nothing but an unaccomplished, closeted queer.”
With this new semi-public image, I was expected to show people the ins and outs of my life: where I was going, whom I was with, and what we were doing. Where previously I flew under the radar, I was suddenly expected to do interviews. How was I supposed to be comfortable in front of a camera when I couldn’t stomach looking at myself in the mirror? The attention that some athletes revel in was causing me turmoil.
Whenever I posted anything on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook, I would read it over 10, 15, 20 times to make sure no one could infer anything about my sexuality. Whenever I was interviewed I would watch the online clips over and over again to make sure I seemed masculine. I seemed fully confident in front of the media, coaches, parents and teammates but completely inadequate, worthless and insecure behind closed doors.
I was the King of the Double Life.
An entire year went on with me living this double life. In June 2014-almost one year to the day after winning my national title-I made a deal with myself. If I didn’t repeat my championship title, the way I was living my life needed to change. For my own personal health, I needed to come out. I needed to accept myself and stop hating myself.
Tom Luchsinger of the USA competes during the Men’s 200m Butterfly prelims of the 15th FINA World Championships on July 30, 2013 in Barcelona. (Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images)
My personal ultimatum came at a time where everything seemed to be spiraling out of control. I felt like garbage in the water. I couldn’t hit a pace time if my life depended on it. My anxiety was through the roof. I was constantly sweating, to the point where I couldn’t keep hydrated. The stress hormones in my blood were triple the concentrations from my previous readings. My resting heart rate was double what it usually was-typically resting in the 30s and 40s, it was now in the 70s and 80s.
My body was beginning to demand a release. I couldn’t take it much longer.
I didn’t repeat my title. I wasn’t even close. A deeply disappointing seventh place.
I decided to keep the deal to myself.
* * *
August 2014. I was petrified, but started to reach out.
My very first confidant was a man named Warren. I knew he would understand what it was like to be a closeted swimmer for he had done it himself, graduating from UNC in 2003. We met up for dinner in New York City and I shared my story with him. He encouraged me, showed me that everything was going to be alright and helped me through the process of telling my family and friends.
My older brother, Ryan, was the first person I told in my family. He had been through a lot in his life, often feeling like an outcast. I felt that he would be the safest and most understanding person to tell. He didn’t even bat a proverbial eyelash. Twenty minutes after I told him, we were making jokes about it. Nothing changed.
My best friend Kate could always could read me like a book; She knew something was wrong. Because we have had an extremely close friendship that has lasted over a decade, I trusted her to keep my most shameful secret.
“Oh my gosh! Why didn’t you tell me sooner?! I’m so happy for you!”
Not a flinch. Lots of excitement. Typical Kate.
Telling my parents proved to be the most emotionally difficult. I was laying in a king size bed at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Chicago after an appearance for my agency, waiting for a flight back to Baltimore. After lying to my parents for so many years, the stress leading up to my big conversation with them caused my normally clear complexion to become riddled with acne — the kind that only the perfect trifecta of finals, lack of sleep and too much caffeine seemed to produce. I had a cold-sore crater on my bottom lip-something that never happened.
I originally wanted to tell my parents face to face, but it was clear that my body wouldn’t allow that to happen.
I called my parents from half a continent away and, like any self-respecting national champion talking with his mom and dad, immediately began to cry.
“I’m gay. And I’m scared.”
They weren’t. They were great.
“Are you the same man we raised for the past 23 years?” They asked.
With a sinking feeling that I had let them down, I told them, “Yes.”
“Then, who cares?”
I lucked out to get them as my parents.
After that I began telling people in casual conversation. I told one of my teammates while we were talking between sets at a workout. I told another friend while talking casually on the phone. It was shocking how easy something that caused me so much pain and anxiety simply began to roll off my tongue. The best part: No one seemed to care!
For as long as I can remember I tried to repress my feelings through athletics. I tried to hide who I was through medals and accomplishments. I tried to pray away my sexuality. I tried to shower it off. Nothing ever worked. After years of stress, hate, and disgust toward myself, I have come to accept who I am. I am a proud gay man living my life the best way I know how, surrounded by people who love and support me!
For years, my sexuality was the quality I was most ashamed of about myself. But now it seems that being gay is one of the characteristics I’m most proud of. I have accomplishments linked to my name that most heterosexual men will never have. I’ve overcome the fear of being rejected from the people I love the most.
My friendships have gotten stronger because of my self acceptance. My smile is a lot more genuine and surfaces much more frequently. I laugh a lot more. My body has time to recover from a workout because I’m actually an easy-going person. I have found qualities-both physical and emotional-that I like about myself – though that’s still a work in progress. My number of good days far out number my bad days.
I’m still the same person I have always been, just a hell of a lot better at it.
Edited by Cyd Zeigler.