By: Julian Venonsky, Coxswain, US Rowing Senior National Team and Athlete Ally Pro Ambassador
It was the fall of 2012, the beginning of my freshman year at University of California, Berkeley. I was exactly where I wanted to be, starting a new chapter of my life. I asked myself, “What story do I want to tell?”
I entered college a member of the Men’s Heavyweight Rowing team as a coxswain. Although I had rowed lightweight for four years in high school, my natural 5’5”, 120-pound frame was better suited to be on the other side of the oar. A coxswain is a leader in a rowing shell, mic’d up to speakers running to each of the seats in the boat. They are responsible for steering, maintaining the safety of the crew, and in a race, executing the race plan and concisely keeping the crew updated with information while five other boats around you are all moving full tilt towards the finish line.
Cal is one of the best collegiate rowing programs in the country, and I found myself on the roster without ever having seriously coxed before. Excited, scared, stressed, in over my head, ready for the challenge, questioning “What am I even doing here?” my mindset seemed to change with every subsequent stroke. On top of everything, I was thrown into life with an entirely new group of people from all over the world. Any bubble of comfortability I had with my close friends in high school had been popped. To the best of my ability, I tried to dive head first into my new position. The only consolation I would assure myself of is that I had no background as a coxswain. No bias. No predispositions. I was a clean slate. I could literally rewrite who I was to be in line with exactly what everyone else wanted of me.
Is this the story I wanted to tell?
At this point, my sexuality was the last thing on my mind. I wasn’t there to share my personal life. I had a job in the boat and I needed to execute that job. Throughout my first year, that was exactly what I did. I focused on improving every day and as quickly as I possibly could. Criticism is an inevitable facet of being in sport, especially so when competing as a coxswain on a team as large as Cal’s. You need to be an asset and never a hindrance to the crew. As important as the coxswain seat is, if I didn’t have those eight rowers in front of me, I’d still be sitting on the starting line while every other boat had left the blocks. Why would I want to possibly hinder any sort of relationship I was beginning to build by being open, by being vocal about being gay? Save for a very small group of what had become, and still are, my closest friends, I just kept quiet.
Is this the story I wanted to tell?
I was proud of my first year’s performance, but again, strived to get better. This then brought me to my 2013-2014 season. I began to find my stride in the sport and at Cal, but I was still holding something back. It was May 2014, the beginning of the spring racing season. It was also when I met someone. This was completely new territory for me, reminiscent of just one and a half years prior when I walked into the boathouse for the first time. Those same thoughts came rushing back: excited, scared, stressed, “Is this even worth it?” I can now say, with complete and utter confidence, it was.
I was finally starting to live a life that was true to me. And it was then that I realized as hard as I tried to improve every day, to be the absolute best I could be, I was my own hindrance. That cloud looming overhead—making me afraid to just be myself—completely impeded what I was trying to accomplish. Only when that cloud was lifted was I able to truly flourish and the next half of my college athletic journey was the best time of my life. I wasn’t being what I thought people wanted me to be—I was the one and only author of my own story.
This is the story I wanted to tell.
The only regret I had was not telling it sooner.
Rowing, as a sport, creates extremely tight-knit groups, especially at the collegiate level. You live, train, learn, race, celebrate, and commiserate with the same group of people day in and day out. It is truly a family. And my Cal family, especially my graduating class of 2016, were easily and unequivocally my greatest allies. Nothing changed when I was truly open, out, and even in a relationship. If anything, our bond strengthened, and our family grew.
After graduating Cal, I eventually joined the US National Team, now training in Oakland, and have had the extreme honor of being the coxswain of the Men’s 8+ at the last three World Championships. And we are a family. A family that doesn’t judge, that supports and empowers each other. When we’re sitting in the starting blocks waiting for that green light, we all trust each other with our lives. I know that every single person in front of me is going to do their job, and they are trusting me to do mine. Nothing else matters in that moment. It’s just the nine of us—waiting, ready, excited for the “GO!”
This is what I wish to see with every program, every sport, every athlete. Inclusion is not just important, it is necessary. I am lucky and incredibly fortunate to have these families. Sadly, this is not always the case. That’s why we need leaders and institutions that proactively create safe spaces for athletes to be fully who they are, without having to worry about being shamed or harassed. I’m proud to be joining Athlete Ally as an Ambassador and working with them to speak out for inclusion. Everyone deserves to be able to compete at their peak as their authentic and unapologetic self.
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Follow Julian on Instagram at @julianvenonsky.