By ERIK HALL
COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — Greg DeStephen dealt with being outed as gay, having hostile teammates and diving with a broken back his freshman year, but none of it stopped him from becoming a four-time All-American diver at Missouri.
He is also the only Missouri athlete to publicly say he is gay while actively competing, the Columbia Missourian reports.
DeStephen qualified for the NCAA Championship meet three of his four years at Missouri. He earned All-Big 12 honors a dozen times from 2007 to 2010. He made the U.S. national team in 2010 for the Canada Cup.
But after his first semester at Missouri, he felt ready to leave. He considered transferring to his hometown Ohio State Buckeyes.
“He would come and talk to me about it,” says Aimee Hukill, a member of the women’s swim team from 2005 to 2009. “He would be like, ‘I need to leave Missouri. I don’t want to be here.'”
Not much more could have gone wrong his first semester. He pleaded guilty to alcohol possession. He broke a bone in his right hand. He got E. coli poisoning. He dove for months with a misdiagnosed fracture in his spine. And he developed mononucleosis.
But the toughest challenge came when a teammate broke his trust and told the rest of the team that he was gay without his permission.
DeStephen went on a date a couple months into his freshman year — his first date with a guy.
He told only three friends in Ohio that he was gay before coming to Columbia. DeStephen felt an attraction to guys, but he thought he may be bisexual. He says he was still “involved” with girls when he made that first same-sex date.
“I was starting to figure out more that I was gay, but I was still also hanging out with girls as well at that point,” he says of his first couple months at Missouri. “I was starting to come to terms with it (being gay).”
But when a teammate revealed DeStephen’s date with a guy, the 5-foot-8 diver’s chance at acceptance that year ended.
None of his teammates said a bad thing to his face, but he heard the things they said. He was told that one teammate said he was “going to hell.” Seven years later, the comment that hurts most was a teammate saying he did not want to change in front of DeStephen.
“It dug in deep,” DeStephen says. “I was there to do a job. I was there to compete and train. I wasn’t there to stare guys down in the locker room. I was insulted and kind of annoyed.”
As his challenges grew that first semester, DeStephen found a quote online that resonated with him: “Adversity causes some men to break, others to break records.” He typed it out, printed it on a half-sheet of copier paper and taped it in his locker at the Mizzou Aquatic Center. DeStephen read it each day for the rest of that season and throughout subsequent seasons.
“What I was going through at that point, I could draw on those experiences to make me work harder and really have an outlet for how I was feeling,” he says.
That approach got him to the NCAA Championship meet for the first time. DeStephen was one of only three Missouri men to compete at the 2007 NCAAs, and that success gained him acceptance on the team. His 20th-place finish in platform diving was the best result of Missouri’s three NCAA competitors.
“I think people who doubted him, whether or not it was because of his sexual orientation, gave him motivation to be better, to be stronger, to dive better, to accomplish more,” says Kendra Melnychuk, a Missouri diver from 2005 to 2009. “Any kind of negative talk that you can throw at him just made him fight harder.”
DeStephen spent the summer after his freshman year in a back brace and back in the closet. An orthopedic surgeon found DeStephen had aggravated a fracture in his spine that had been there for months.
Without diving, DeStephen found his first boyfriend. But DeStephen ended things in April 2008.
The ups and downs of his first relationship did not stop his diving success. DeStephen captured his first All-American honor by finishing 12th in the 3-meter springboard at the 2008 NCAA Championships.
The accolade was significant for him and challenged stereotypes.
“It’s part of society’s beliefs that a gay man can’t be as athletic and successful as a straight man,” DeStephen says of sports overall. “It wasn’t as accepted even five years ago.”
In May of his sophomore year, DeStephen read a story on Gay.com about Maryland-Baltimore County swimmer Fred Deal announcing he was gay. DeStephen sent the website an email that he liked the Deal story and that he was a gay diver himself. The site responded asking if it could tell his story — the gay All-American diver in the heartland.
“I wasn’t really sure what that (Gay.com) was,” DeStephen says. “I just stumbled upon the article. I was a little apprehensive about it.”
Missouri diving coach Jamie Sweeney encouraged DeStephen to let himself be written about, but DeStephen knew he had to do something else first. He had to finally tell his parents that he was gay.
“It put pressure on me to do something I wanted to do anyways,” he says.
He had 13 days back in Columbus between the end of spring semester and the start of summer school. On his 12th and final night at home, he sat with his mom, Karen, in his parent’s downstairs office and told her.
The next morning, he told his dad.
“I wanted to let you know that I am gay,” DeStephen said to his dad, Steve.
It was one sentence, and then he waited for a response.
Steve DeStephen remembers feeling compassion and thinking: “This is not something you really wish on your children” and “It brings extra pressure on you.”
But the words he chose have stuck with both of them for almost six years. Steve DeStephen looked into Greg’s blue eyes and said, “Honestly, I don’t care. I’ll support you. What is important is that you’re a good person in this world.”
They finished their conversation and hugged.
Greg DeStephen then drove the eight hours back to Columbia that final Wednesday of May in his black 2006 Subaru Impreza. He felt prepared to do what no Missouri athlete had ever done. He would soon tell the world he was gay.
Gay.com staff writer Robert Ordona interviewed DeStephen and Sweeney. The article “Dive Talkin'” published online June 17, 2008. It was the day before the U.S. Olympic Diving Trials.
“Once I came out and that was something that was put behind me, it let me really focus on what was important,” DeStephen says. “It just let me be who I was, and I wasn’t hiding a secret anymore. That definitely weighs on you.”
He was free.
His team knew. His parents knew. The world knew.