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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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 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
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
I was the King of the
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
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
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
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
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
I originally wanted to
tell my parents face to face, but it was clear that my body wouldn't allow that
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
They weren't. They
"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."
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
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
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
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
I'm still the same
person I have always been, just a hell of a lot better at it.