You walk into the gym, ready to train to become the best athlete in your sport. Dedicated. Determined. Ready to conquer. And, of course, true to yourself.
That's something I've struggled with since I can remember.
Growing up, I had three main goals: be a professional martial artist, join the military, and become a law enforcement officer. I achieved them all. I began serving as an infantryman in the U.S. Army in 2002. In 2005, I started training with UFC middleweight champion Frank Shamrock. A year later, I was the San Jose Razor Claw's lightweight fighter. Then 2008 marked the year I became a deputy sheriff.
But all my dreams kept me from coming out. I struggled deep inside with the thoughts of what my friends and family would think. Will they still love and support me? Would I be kicked out of the military? Would my mixed martial arts team not feel comfortable training with me and treat me differently?
My entire life was engulfed in a macho culture with all the gay jokes and putdowns you could imagine. This made me question: Was something really wrong with me? I lived a double life. I had to be someone else with my military friends, my family, and my wife.
I was married in 2007. I loved her, but something just was not right. She was beautiful, intelligent, witty -- the wife I was programmed to marry. Being my true self didn't feel like an option. It wasn't until I was shipped off to Iraq that I started to discover who I truly was.
I found diversity was something I wasn't very familiar with. I slowly began to hint to my close friends in Iraq that I might be g-a-y, the word I was ever so terrified of letting out of my mouth.
My double life and deception brought on extreme psychological and physical stress. I chose to live separate lives to avoid any possible consequences. I got so comfortable lying that it actually became somewhat scary, and I knew I had to do something about it.
That's where my partner, Casey, came in.
During my six-month leave, I met someone who loved himself and was proud of who he was. Casey was openly gay and only 20 years old. I fell in love with him.
I was inspired by athletes like Michael Sam and Jason Collins. They demonstrated great courage by coming out to their peers. I figured it was time for me to do so as well, yet I didn't know how.
It wasn't easy, but I found the courage to face the discrimination I constantly feared. Some of my family members and close friends had a hard time with me coming out due to their religious beliefs. Setting that all aside, I took a deep breath and began to accept myself.
I was out. I was proud. I was me.
I made it my personal goal to let my story be heard and to set an example that will encourage other gay athletes who are struggling with this issue to not be afraid of who they truly are.
I am truly grateful for organizations like Athlete Ally, Freedom to Marry, and Equality Florida. Their determination to end discrimination and to promote equality has positively influenced our culture. I look forward to the day my partner and I can distinguish our love and marry in the state of Florida.
Until you accept yourself fully for who you are and embrace what you were put on this earth to do, you will always be searching for happiness and meaning when it's already in front of you.
I urge you to take my advice. Don't fight with yourself any longer. Don't hide who you are. Don't fear what others will think. Follow your heart and do not overthink things. You know what's right and what you need to do.
Now do it!
JOSH ODOM is an MMA fighter. He and his partner, Casey Carlson, work together with organizations such as Freedom to Marry for marriage equality. This story was originally published by Equality Florida and Athlete Ally.