Coming Out To The Team

Openly gay U of A swimmer offers advice to closeted athletes

By Megan Wadding, September 2015 Issue

Jon Denton-Schneider is a 24-year-old collegiate athlete who lives in Tucson.

Denton-Schneider grew up north of San Francisco, California and moved to Tucson in 2009 to attend – and swim for – the University of Arizona.

After graduating summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in economics, entrepreneurship and Spanish, he had another season of NCAA eligibility remaining. So, he did what any athlete would do: He started his master’s degree in Latin American studies in order to continue competing in the sport he loves.

Although Denton-Schneider came out to his swim team in 2011, Echo caught up with him just as he shared his story with the world.

Echo: How old were you when you started swimming?

Denton-Schneider: I started swimming at a young age and competed in a summer league, but I waited until my sophomore year in high school to switch to a year-round team. I come from a family that is huge on soccer, so that was my focus until I had a knee surgery when I was 13. I cannot imagine my life without the sport.

Echo: Growing up, or at least while you were in college, who were your role models? Did you have any gay athlete icons that made you believe you could actually be out and successful in your sport?

Denton-Schneider: I was lucky to come to a program in which there had been several gay athletes over the past decade. In a sense, I already had the trail-blazed for me on my team. I was incredibly fortunate to be able to swim at Arizona, which is one of the best teams in the country. My role models were the many teammates who were national champions, Olympians, world record holders, Rhodes Scholars and NCAA Women of the Year. As a huge soccer fan, I also consider Robbie Rogers a role model. He seems like an awesome guy and it is great how he is breaking down barriers in the world’s most popular sport.

Echo: What kind of swimming did you do during your career as a Wildcat?

Denton-Schneider: I swam breaststroke and a bit of sprint freestyle for the UA team. I started competing as soon as I arrived in Tucson, but sat out the following year because of my knee. I returned to competition in 2011 and finished my collegiate career in 2014.

Echo: Can you tell me a little about your coming out story? How did your team react to the news?

Photo by Sarah Howard.

Photo by Sarah Howard.

Denton-Schneider:  It went against our team culture to gather everyone around and make big emotional announcements in the locker room. Instead, I decided to tell the teammates I was closest to, knowing they would do the heavy lifting of telling everyone else. My goal was to make it as little of an “event” as possible. I am sure most of my teammates already knew because I never dated any girls and was not heavily religious, so that left only one other explanation.

Echo: What about your coach? When did you tell him?

Denton-Schneider: I decided not to explicitly come out to my coaches. A college coach – while always mentor and sometimes a father figure to his athletes – is first and foremost their boss. I wanted to keep our relationship professional. That being said, the swimming world is so small that everyone knows everyone else’s business very quickly. My coaches were unfailingly supportive throughout my college career and that did not change in the slightest after they learned I am gay. I took the guy I was dating at the time to dinner with my primary coach and her husband, and we had a blast.

Echo: Before coming out to your team, what were your fears?

Denton-Schneider: My biggest fear was that I would have to spontaneously retire from swimming. In high school, I did not know of any openly gay swimmers at the NCAA Division I level, so I assumed there was causal relationship: one could not compete for a top program and be openly gay. Obviously, that fear was ridiculous and I had a collegiate career of which I am extremely proud.

Echo: Are you glad you came out to your team when you did?

Denton-Schneider: I am very glad I came out when I did and how I did. I was not ready for it until that moment, and I am not someone to rush things. The way I came out was ideal for our team culture and I would not change anything about it.

Echo: How did things change – or not change – after you came out to the team? How did you feel?

Denton-Schneider: Nothing changed at all. It was exactly the response I wanted. We were the Wildcat family and I felt relieved to no longer keep a secret from the guys I considered brothers. I cannot imagine anyone was particularly surprised, either, so I am sure that helped.

Echo: What were some of the reactions you received from your peers and team?

Denton-Schneider: I had absolutely zero bad reactions from anyone. The best reaction was actually from one of the guys I was most concerned would have a problem with a gay teammate. He is from a very rural and conservative part of the country, so I did not know what would happen. I got tired of tiptoeing around the issue with him, so at a party I made an edgy joke about it. To my surprise, he laughed so hard he doubled over. Then he hugged me and said, “I love you, buddy.” It was perfect.

Echo: Do you feel it is becoming easier for athletes to come out? What is changing with regard to the sports world?

Denton-Schneider: It is definitely less difficult for most athletes to come out, but it varies by many factors specific to the athlete, including sport, family, race and religion. In more individual-based sports, like swimming, there is less of a concern that a gay teammate would be a “weak link,” but that could still be a stereotype in a team sport like football. Given that there are no active openly gay NFL players, it may well be a concern for closeted athletes. On the other hand, leagues like the MLB and companies like Nike have been at the forefront of inclusion in sports, and they deserve a lot of credit and thanks from the LGBT community.

Echo: What advice would you have to athletes who are struggling to come out of the closet?

Photo by Daron Shade.

Photo by Daron Shade.

Denton-Schneider: My advice is to find the person in the world, or at least on your team, you are closest to and tell them once you feel you are ready. More often than not, that person already knows. I also recommend rehearsing what you will say to that person. An athlete would never play a game or compete in a race without extensive preparation, so you want to be able to rely on your training when the nerves hit as you come out for the first time.

Echo: What is your life like now? What are you up to?

Denton-Schneider: I am very much enjoying studying and conducting research, so I am very confident in my decision to pursue a career in academia. At the moment, I am finishing my Master’s thesis, which is a case study of startups in a second-tier city in Brazil. My life is great.

Denton-Schneider plans to pursue a Ph.D. in economics. He can be reached by email at jdschn@email.arizona.edu or via Facebook at facebook.com/jon.dentonschneider.


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