By Matthew Breen
In April gymnast Graham Ackerman won the national championship in the floor exercise event at the 2005 NCAA Men�s Gymnastics Championship at the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., making him a three-time national champ and one of only a handful of openly gay top-ranked college athletes. In 2004 he had nabbed the national titles in two events�floor and vault�a stunning double win for the University of California, Berkeley, political science and European affairs double major. Ackerman, who was raised in Seattle and is 22, seems like a perfect poster boy to encourage athletes to come out of the closet�in addition to his achievements in the gym, he�s a good student and he�s very attractive�but he�s a bit of a reluctant role model, and being a trailblazer wasn�t on his mind when he told his teammates that he is gay.
Did you see any irony in the fact that you were presented your championship award by a West Point cadet, given that as an out gay man you wouldn�t be able to attend the school or join the military?
I don�t really remember. It�s all kind of a blur once you�re competing. Any competition is really hard for me to remember.
When did you come out? What led you to decide to tell your team?
I came out my sophomore year. I�d been out to a few friends in high school before that, but up until I was 19 it was something I tried not to think about, but to concentrate on school and gymnastics. But it kind of got to the point where I realized that I needed to be honest with myself and I wanted to be honest with my friends too. I came out to my team first. That was the hardest. They all took it well. I credit the team captains who took the team together and said, �Graham is part of the team, and this is who he is.� I was really blown away.
I imagine you�re one of the most visible college competitors because of the media attention for being openly gay. Have any opposing teams or competitors said anything derogatory?
No, no one has had a problem with it. It�s a little weird because I didn�t know who knew and who didn�t. It fazed me a little bit the first year. I was a little uneasy. I wasn�t comfortable being out yet.
What do you make of the assumption that there are many gay gymnasts?
It�s just a stereotype of the sport. Because of the stereotype, I think a lot of straight gymnasts are guarded. It�s been good for my team to be exposed to someone who is gay, because they�ve had to adjust. It�s been a learning experience for so many of us: for teammates, myself, my coaches, my parents. The assumption that gymnasts are effeminate might come from the fact that there are a lot more famous female gymnasts than male gymnasts out there. Everyone knows Nadia [Comaneci] and Olga Korbut and Mary Lou Retton, but if you ask the average person to name the last five [male] gymnastics all-around champions, no one can do that.
For more from Ackerman, including his thoughts on encouraging other athletes to come out, being a role model, and dating while competing, pick up the August issue of Out.
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