Running Free: Olympic Hopeful Andrew Goodman Is Disproving Lingering Stereotypes About Gay Athletes

Former Colorado State runner Andrew Goodman had to look outside his sport for role models of openly gay elite athletes.

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Mar 24 2016, 1:54pm

Courtesy Andrew Goodman

In middle school, before Andrew Goodman was even sure what he was, other kids bullied him. They called him "queer" and "faggot." Those kids included his track and field teammates.

His parents told him to ignore the insults, that the other kids were just seeking attention. But it was hard. Their slurs hurt. And troubled him, because in the back of his mind, Goodman feared he might actually be gay.

In high school, he fashioned a new identity that won him acceptance: elite runner. He won 10 all-state honors in track and cross-country, and was named the top male athlete at Palmer High School (Colorado). The teasing subsided.

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Yet Goodman still feared that if he let anyone know about his sexual feelings, all of the honors and acceptance would go away. He couldn't even admit to himself he was gay.

He had this idea ingrained into his psyche: Good athletes aren't gay. "I thought if people knew I was gay, they would view me as a lesser athlete," he says.

He worried that if he had a bad workout, his teammates or coaches would think, He's not tough. Because he was gay.

The fears weren't just in his head. At the time, there were no openly gay elite male runners he could look to as role models. Matt Llano, an All-American runner now vying for a spot on the 2016 Olympic team, did not come out until 2014, when he was 26—something, he told ESPN, "wasn't easy to do." Goodman did not know that there were other runners like him; he didn't know anything different than the negative perceptions of gay athletes.

"It motivated me," he says. "My results became a way to prove the stereotype wrong."

Goodman (No. 21) running for CSU. Courtesy Andrew Goodman

His success on the track may not have erased sports' lingering homophobia, but they did win him a running scholarship at Colorado State University, where he competed on both the cross-country and track teams. Yet even at a liberal school like CSU, he did not find it any easier to admit who he was. He did not want his teammates or coaches to know about his sexuality, lest the bullying and exclusion of middle school repeat itself.

Instead, Goodman focused on running and studying. He pulled straight A's, missing a perfect 4.0 GPA with a single A- in a freshman composition course. He preferred track to cross-country and mastered his specialty, the 3,000-meter steeplechase. Sophomore year, at the Long Beach Invite in California, he turned in the fifth-fastest time by a Colorado State runner in the event with a 8:54:64. He finished second in the Mountain West conference and qualified for the 2013 NCAA championships. He was on the distance medley relay team that won the indoor conference title in 2013 and 2014. He also ran a personal best 4:10 mile in New Mexico.

Throughout, Goodman guarded his sexual feelings. He had never dared to act on them. But in the spring of 2014, at 21, he decided it was finally time to try, finally time to figure out who he was. "After I kissed a guy, I thought, 'I'm fine with this. This is who I am,'" he says.

He confirmed his sexual orientation and accepted it, but that did not take away the fears of how others might react.

It wasn't until he met a kid who couldn't run, an 11-year-old boy in a wheelchair, that he finally found the courage to be himself. Goodman met that boy, Sam, at a camp for children with muscular dystrophy where he volunteered for a week during the summer of 2014, between his junior and senior year of college. Sam's handicap was even more severe than those of the other campers. Typical of children, they bombarded him with questions about his condition.

"He never took offense, but simply answered their questions matter of factly," Goodman says. "He told me, 'People are just curious. It's not that they have a problem with me or are judging me.'"

That rocked Goodman. "Sam was always smiling and having a good time, yet sometimes I let my sexuality get me down," he says. "I started to realize what was different about me was pretty insignificant."

That same summer, Goodman also met Josh Dixon, a gymnast on the U.S. national team who trains in Colorado Springs. He was the first openly gay elite athlete Goodman had met. "Until that point, I hadn't realized there were so many successful gay athletes," Goodman says. "I realized it was possible to be gay and a good athlete."

Dixon and Sam became role models of self-acceptance for Goodman, ones that the running world had not provided. He decided he would no longer hide who he was. He did not want to broadcast his sexual identity, but if someone asked, he decided he would answer honestly.

He confided in a couple of close friends, who were supportive. Coming out to his parents, both teachers, proved to be anti-climatic. He had always been close to them. They had always been open-minded, accepting of a gay neighbor.

One evening that summer, when Goodman's mom asked him what he wanted for dinner, he said he wouldn't be home for dinner because he had a date. With Michael.

"Are you trying to tell me something?" his mom asked.

"Yes," he said.

And that was it. No big deal. He was who he was.

Colorado State's cross-country team huddle before a race. Courtesy Andrew Goodman

But telling his college teammates seemed more intimidating. He didn't want them to treat him any differently. And, of course, there was the risk of being rejected and bullied. Once someone has experienced that, they always fear they will suffer it again.

He had tested the waters with one of the female throwers on the track team, Kiah Hicks. They went for a walk. He started crying. He told her he was gay but scared. She tried to reassure him he would be okay, that the others would accept him.

But it took several months for him to trust any of his male teammates. They hung together, traveled together, roomed together, showered together. He did not want to lose their friendship. Midway through the cross-country season, the team was in South Bend for the Notre Dame Invite. Someone asked Goodman whom he was texting. "Some girl," he replied. The lie nagged at him, though.

Later, alone with Jeff Abbey, his roommate for road meets, he said, "That wasn't some girl. It was a guy. That's what's going on in my life."

He knew Abbey had had an openly gay teammate in high school, and Abbey had been okay with him. Still, it was a risk. He wasn't sure how his roommate would react.

Abbey gave Goodman a hug. "Nothing wrong with that," he told Goodman.

Goodman told a couple of other female teammates and soon his sexual identity was common knowledge. He was relieved to realize his fear was unfounded; they did not treat him any differently. Abbey even made sure that no one used insensitive language around Goodman. When a woman on the team used a derogatory term casually in conversation, Abbey reprimanded her.

By November, Goodman felt comfortable enough to come out publicly, though subtly. The night before the NCAA Cross Country Championship in Terre Haute, Indiana, he wrote with rainbow-colored markers on the outside arch of his running shoes, "#BeTrue," Nike's slogan for its LGBT-inspired clothing line. He posted a photo of his shoes and race bib on Instagram and Facebook.

And held his breath. But there was no negative backlash. Just another positive step forward for Goodman. "I needed to be true to me and put it out there," he says.

He "put it out there" even further when he agreed to tell his story on Outsports last spring. The writer Eric Hall had reached out to him to share his experience on the site, which often features coming-out stories from athletes across a wide range of sports. Goodman realized there could be value to others who had too long lived with the stereotypes of gay athletes he had mistakenly held. The response was overwhelmingly positive. He received an encouraging email from Matt Llano, still the only openly gay professional runner, and heard from other gay collegiate athletes.

Goodman also heard from others who were in a similar situation to what he had been in: closeted and afraid. Ten other runners confided in him their fears of being outed and shunned. Suddenly, his experience changed from being something he wanted to keep secret to a means for him to help others. He responded to each, now the one able to provide support. "It's nice to know what I did has helped someone," he says.

A couple of his coaches told Goodman they admired his guts for putting himself out there. At dinner with one of the assistant track coaches, he asked if she would have wanted to know he was gay.

"No," she said. "It's a non-issue. You were recruited for your athletic ability."

He realized his early fears had been unfounded. "The whole process has been very affirming," he says.

Goodman with his teammates. Courtesy Andrew Goodman.

Not least of all was the freedom he felt on the track once he went public. At a meet in February 2015 hosted by the University of New Mexico, his first indoor track meet since his social media post, he did not feel nervous. He had put himself out there, others knew he was gay, but it didn't matter. He was there to run—and run he did, blowing past the lead runners in the final 400 meters of the mile and winning the race.

Goodman graduated last May with a major in health and exercise science. He's living in Fort Collins, working part-time on automated systems for a Denver medical supply sales company and applying to med schools. He trains with the CSU team and continues to compete in collegiate events, doing so unattached since he is not currently enrolled in school. In early February, he ran a personal best 3,000 meters on an indoor track.

Goodman would like to run a sub-8:40 in the 3,000-meter steeplechase and to qualify for the Olympic trials in mid-June, though he knows it's a long shot for him to make the team. His experience with Sam, whom he has stayed in touch with, has influenced his desire to become a pediatrician. Though not in a relationship at the moment, he would like to raise children of his own one day.

Through his whole coming out experience, his fears have sloughed away with each step along the way. He's surprised how far he has come and how good it has been. "Nothing significant in my life has chanced since I came out," he says. "I see myself foremost as a runner. Period. My sexuality is a secondary thing."

He's content to keep running. And grateful to be running free.

John Rosengren is an award-winning writer and co-author of Esera Tuaolo's memoir Alone in the Trenches: My Life as a Gay Man in the NFL.