For gay Eastern Michigan runner Austin Hendrix, finding acceptance among his teammates wasn't hurdle-free, but in the end he realized he had nothing to fear.
Joining a top-notch running program that has produced two Olympic gold medalists can be daunting for any college freshmen. But for Hendrix, who had been out of the closet since high school, it involved the added pressure of whether or not to be honest in this new environment about who he really was.
"I was new here. I didn't know anyone on the team, I didn't know anyone on the campus at all. So nobody knew that I was gay," Hendrix, now 21 and a fourth-year junior, tells the Associated Press. "I had to make the decision on whether or not to confide in my teammates, coach, classmates, whatever, that I was gay and tell them my sexuality, or just keep it a secret."
He chose the latter and would remain quiet about his sexuality for two years, during which he says the subject consumed his thoughts. Eventually he became "fed up with lying and hiding," and came out to a friend on the team. The reaction he got was not what he expected.
The friend was surprised, but said that Hendrix's sexuality didn't change a thing. Before long, his entire squad knew. His straight roommate, James Hughes, says the news was such a nonevent that he can't even remember where he was when he learned it.
"I didn't see it coming," Hughes says. "And then, instantly, all I could think about was, 'I hope I never said anything to offend him.'"
After two years of stressing, Hendrix realized that none of his friends or teammates cared if he was gay or straight. And being able to finally ditch the weight of that secret, he found his life improved in every way.
"If you go to practice and can feel comfortable, you start feeling better mentally and emotionally. Everything just starts getting better," Hendrix said. "You can just concentrate on being the best athlete you can be instead of worrying about every other little thing."