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Kate Scarbrough / Senior Staff Photographer

Sophomore Kai Schultz considers himself lucky to be part of a team as open to and supportive of his orientation as the men's swimming and diving team.

Last March, loud cheers and chants from a small group of men clad in light blue echoed over a pool decked out in crimson flags. It was the last event of Ivy Championships—the 400 free relay—and Columbia was, to put it simply, dominating. The Lions' support for their teammates was unmatched by the poolside. Chemistry matters. Whether it's at an initiation tradition, an annual midnight practice before the season starts, or shouting routine chants, the Columbia men's swimming and diving team is closely knit. Perhaps this chemistry accounts for the welcoming environment found by team's openly gay athletes. "We're like family. We spend so much time together, in the pool and outside of the pool," said senior co-captain Alex Smith, an "out" member of the team. Sophomore Kai Schultz agrees. "Everybody hangs out together. Everybody is included in the activities that you do in the team," he said. "There aren't really any divisions within the team based on sexual orientation, ethnicity, class. So that is certainly something that I really appreciate—something that I think makes the team a really safe environment to be gay on." On the team, Schultz estimates that there are about six or seven openly gay athletes, including himself, Smith, and senior Kevin Zhai. All three came out when they were in college. Smith, who went to an all-male Catholic high school, welcomed the change that Columbia provided. "There was definitely a sense in high school of closed in upon and not being able to express myself in the way that I wanted to—and then coming to Columbia and finding an environment that I felt was really open and wanted me to explore myself and be myself," Smith said. Zhai also found the team to be helpful during the transition. "My team has always been very supportive throughout the coming-out process," he said. Schultz, who came out last March, thinks there are two factors that explain the welcoming environment. The first is the type of student that Columbia generally attracts, being a progressive campus. The second is unique to the swim team—it's all about having teammates to relate to. "In terms of the swim team, I think just the fact that there is a visible presence of gay swimmers ... forces the straight swimmers to have to start to understand what it is to be a gay athlete," Schultz said. "I think when you have a bunch of different people all thrown together, you really learn about other people's differences, and really come to accept everybody for who they are and really understand where they're coming from." No team is perfect, Schultz admits, but the CU swim team is pretty good. "I'm very spoiled here. I certainly think that with certain types of sports it might be more of an issue than others," he said. All three also characterized swimming in general as an LGBT-friendly sport. Hudson Taylor, an assistant wrestling coach at Columbia, has an explanation. "The more contact-based the sport is, the more we see homophobia rear its ugly head," he said. Swimming is as non-contact as sports come—each swimmer has his or her own lane. Despite the openness found at Uris Pool, homophobia is still a big problem in athletics, both across college campuses and here at Columbia. Taylor, who started the nonprofit organization Athlete Ally—which promotes respect for all athletes, gay or straight—acknowledges that Columbia is better at tolerance than other universities, but cautions against overgeneralizing about an entire athletic department. "While I think Columbia is great and is doing great work in the States, it's hard to make a blanket statement about all athletics, and I'm sure that phrases like 'that's so gay' still get thrown around here at Columbia and elsewhere," he said. Zhai's time also hasn't been picture-perfect, either in the pool or out. "In terms of people's personal views, I think some people are not necessarily as open-minded as I would like them to be," he said. "It's not even that they're intentionally hateful or hurtful, but sometimes they're just a little bit ignorant and don't take time to think about things before they say them." One of the problems with athletics, according to Taylor, is that stereotypes are frequently treated as truth: People expect that in order to be a successful male athlete, you have to be straight. "Homophobic language is an easy tool for someone to assert their straightness," he said. The worst cases are when an athlete is forced to quit after coming out—something Taylor has seen at multiple universities. While times are certainly getting better, LGBT students are still not universally accepted at campuses across America, especially on athletic teams. Action is being taken, though, and Taylor is a part of it. The mission statement of his nonprofit is to provide advocacy campaigns, on-campus trainings, and tools to help athletic teams throughout the country promote tolerance. Other websites, such as Outsports, collect coming-out stories of professional, college, and high school athletes. The support is starting to come together, but team members say there are steps that need to be taken at all levels—by administrators, coaches, and players. For his part, Taylor emphasizes respect. "I think the main point that I try to make when I talk to athletes is that sportsmanship is synonymous with allyship," he said. "What's at the heart of athletics is this idea of mutual respect, of coming together and putting our differences aside so that we can accomplish our athletic goals." Taylor stressed that change won't come from gay athletes alone. "Speaking out as an ally, as a champion of inclusion and respect, is a really easy step to take. I think that we are going to see the most change in athletics when we have a critical mass of straight allies showing their support. That's really what I'm working towards and what I hope to see more of." And although Taylor believes that coming out is a big burden to ask a gay athlete to bear, Zhai thinks that part of the responsibility lies on LGBT athletes to be as open as possible. "I think the only way to really get to people is by having a close relationship with them," Zhai said. "People who may not have had openly gay friends before, once they develop that friendship with them, they have a direct tie to the LGBT community."

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