By: Juliana Riotto, 2018 Junior World Silver Medalist, 2018 Junior Pan American Champion, 2018 Junior Female Lifter of the Year, Junior American Record Holder (Snatch/Total), 2019 International Weightlifting Federation World Cup Bronze Medalist and Athlete Ally Pro Ambassador
Growing up, I used to dream of becoming a professional athlete. Now, every time I put on my Team USA uniform to represent my country, I get to live that dream over and over again. I hope to one day be able to do that on an Olympic stage.
My journey into weightlifting actually started with CrossFit. When I was 16 years old, I competed in the CrossFit Open, and the first workout had a maximum attempt clean and jerk (15.1a). I lifted 210lbs (96kg) which placed me first in the world for that lift out of all of the teens competing. USA Weightlifting’s CEO Phil Andrews heard about my accomplishments and reached out to my CrossFit Gym. I was then invited out to multiple weightlifting training camps at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado to be coached further and tap into more of my potential. It’s been an incredible experience.
In weightlifting, I love that it’s just me and a barbell. My results purely depend on what I can lift on the competition platform after months of training, dedication and hard work. There’s no room for politics, opinions or judgement. That’s been especially meaningful for me since I came out. Thankfully, my friends, coaches and teammates have all been extremely supportive, as was my fanbase on social media. My conservative parents were another story.
I had just flown home from China where I competed at the 2019 International Weightlifting Federation World Cup, and won bronze at my first senior international competition. The competition made me think more about my future and how I wanted to live my life. I told my parents I wanted to become more independent, and we started to argue. I found myself getting really emotional. I had been keeping from them that I had been dating a woman for the past two months because I knew it would not go over well at all, but was hopeful that they would surprise me with their reaction. I could not stop crying and they kept asking me questions: “What happened Jul? Have you been sleeping around with men? Are you pregnant? Are you doing drugs? Are you in some sort of trouble?”
They asked me every question you could think of before asking me if I was gay. Like that they were hoping I would reply “yes” to any other of those questions but their last one. “Are you a lesbian?” I nodded yes and they both began to cry. They told me they couldn’t allow this and that I needed help.
For the first time, I stood up to my parents and told them that this is who I am, and that I wasn’t going to end my relationship with a woman I care deeply for because they didn’t approve of it. The next morning, I left and drove to my girlfriend’s house, and started to build a new life for myself away from them. My whole world was turned upside down. I had to get a new bank account, phone plan, car and housing plan, navigating a completely new life while still training full-time.
I always wanted to be able to bring my significant other home to my parents and show her the amazing Italian food I’d have every Sunday, where I grew up and my favorite spots in my hometown, like my favorite park, restaurant and ice cream spots. Now, I don’t know if I ever will, and that breaks my heart. I’m extremely thankful that the woman I have fought to be with cares for me as deeply as I do for her, and has had my back through all of this. Her family has been just as supportive and has helped me stay on my own two feet while I have had to deal with losing the support of my parents as well as living in the real world as an adult and full-time athlete. I’m also grateful for some of my extended family who reached out with support, and welcomed my girlfriend to that part of my family.
This whole experience has reinforced for me how important community is. I’m so thankful that weightlifting is a space that welcomes LGBTQI+ athletes, and I believe all athletes that want to participate should be able to. Laurel Hubbard, who is a transgender woman and weightlifter competing internationally for New Zealand, has faced a lot of discrimination based on misconceptions people have about trans athletes and competitive advantage. I think we need to bring more education and awareness about LGBTQI+ athletes, so that everyone can better understand we all compete for the same reason: to do what we love.
It’s my dream for every LGBTQI+ athlete to know that they absolutely can be who they are and participate in the sport they love. Being unique and proud of that will inspire countless others around you. Don’t let anyone dim your light. Being who you truly are and being happy is the most important thing in this world. Do not ever let anyone stop you from being true to yourself. Love is what brings people together, that starts with loving yourself and who you are.
Right now, as we’re living through the global pandemic of COVID-19, we need that love more than ever. What is happening in the world today is horrible and scary. But at times like this, if we can unite and help keep everyone safe, we can get through this. We’re stronger in numbers, and so the more we can come together as a global community, the better things will be for us moving forward. In the meantime, if you’re feeling alone, use your social media to connect with others. Take or lead a group Zoom workout or fitness or dance challenge, and reach out to your followers and friends. Let’s talk to each other and help each other through.
If I can be a source of inspiration and support to other LGBTQI+ athletes, that would mean the world to me. I’m so excited to join Athlete Ally as a Pro Ambassador. Being able to be part of a movement to promote allyship and a safe space for LGBTQI+ athletes is very important to me, and using sports and passionate athletes to do so as a tool is even more meaningful. I love pouring my heart out on a platform after hitting big weights and getting the crowd involved as well. I am my happiest and most proud representing my country, coach, team and the people who helped me get there on that competition stage. I’m happy to say I can add Athlete Ally and everything they stand for to that list.