My new cleats squelched in the soggy field, a soccer ball between my feet. The whistle blew and the boy ahead of me launched forward. You’re next. You’ve got this. My muscles tensed. Let’s go! Push the ball out, gather speed, move it to the right, aim, shoot! The ball raced towards the goal’s lower left corner and the goalie dived—but too late.
Relief flooded my body. I did it! I was six years old, playing on my hometown’s boys’ soccer team. During the first drill of our first practice, with all eyes on me, I’d scored a goal. Try as I might, I couldn’t stifle a grin and feeling proud of myself. I jogged back into line, passing the coach. “Oh great, we’ve got a Baryshnikov here,” he said, rolling his eyes as I went past.
Weird word. Practice continued with various drills, my confidence growing each minute. “Hey, Twinkle Toes, try running like a boy!” I turned to see the coach slapping his assistant on the shoulder, doubled over laughing. I looked to my left, my right, wondering what was so funny.
“Yeah, you! Run like a boy, Greenie!” shouted the coach, mockingly pronouncing my name. I froze. They’re laughing at you. What did you do wrong? The other boys turned, looking at me and laughing. Sure, some likely didn’t know why, just that everybody else was, so they should, too. “Stop running like a pansy!” the coach shouted, shaking his head.
Walls Loom Tall
As the years passed, I withdrew into myself, building an internal barrier for self-preservation. Not once did I participate in an athletic activity without hearing those words echo in my head. I became fixated on how I stood, walked, ran, furtively studying those around me to try and understand what I was doing wrong. Season after season, year after year, I tried out for soccer, basketball, tennis, and volleyball, always with the same unsuccessful result—and the same comments, the same eyerolls.
Years later, sitting at my family’s desktop, I initiated the long, loud sequence of dialing into the internet. I was discovering new skills and interests. Opening AOL, I pecked at the keys one by one, typing C-Y-R-I-L-L-I-C. As the page loaded in increments, I sat there entranced, looking at the familiar yet odd letters, quietly pronouncing them: А а, Б б, В в, Г г, and so on.
Languages enthralled me, and I had begun spending my time collecting dictionaries, reading grammar books, and teaching myself new alphabets. I’d spend hours turning the pages of books I couldn’t read, wondering what secrets lay hidden among the shapes on the page and imagining how my life might be different if those were my letters, my language, my world. I turned to a list of cognates in the textbook before me, slowly sounding out each word—парк, театр, балет—eventually moving to full sentences with authentic Russian names. I froze: Михаил Барышников артист балета.
Here was the word that had rattled around inside my head for years, that coach’s voice filling my mind each time I kicked a soccer ball, dribbled a basketball, held a tennis racquet. Here was the answer to one of my childhood questions: Mikhail Baryshnikov is a ballet dancer. I recognized the disdain behind the coach’s comments, equating ballet to femininity.
Climbing the Wall
That same refrain played in my head in the summer of 2022 while hiking with my partner, Sean Hubbard, in the northwoods of Wisconsin. As we wandered among waterfalls with temperatures climbing towards the triple digits, he asked me: would you like to play in the MGHA? For the past several winters, we’d spent time on Tenney Lagoon, him, an experienced player, helping me learn to skate properly, showing me how to receive a pass, and picking me back up after hitting the ice yet another time.
Hockey had interested me since childhood, with Friday nights often spent far from home at Schneider Arena at Providence College, cheering on the team. Now Sean was offering the opportunity to learn and play with other beginners, in a league created by and for queer people. Still, I paused. In my head, that pause was filled with children laughing, being called “Baryshnikov,” “Twinkle Toes,” “Pansy,” and more. Memories flashed through my mind of pushing myself at tryouts each season, but never seeing my name on the roster; of jogging on a treadmill while scanning the room to make sure no one was watching; of registering as a free agent for adult volleyball, but never being a part of a team.
I soon found myself in a locker room with a host of other beginners being taught how to dress for hockey. As I pulled the laces on my skates tight, feeling the pads shift around me, nerves began to set in. Forcing the helmet down onto my head, I slid on my gloves, grabbed my stick, and wobbled towards the ice. My nerves increased and the same tired internal refrain set in, the jabs and taunts replaying again and again.
Trying to push those voices aside, a new one bellowed out “Circle up!” In the center of the ice stood Mark Nessel, ready to lead our first training. With a broad smile, Mark began “Before we start, I want you each to know how proud I am of you. Hockey is difficult, it’s fast. Coming out onto the ice at any age takes courage, and I admire your willingness to try something new as adults. Do your best. Have fun.”
In that moment, the protective barrier within me wobbled: here stood a cisgender, heterosexual, masculine man and rather than chastise, taunt, or ignore me, he instead offered praise and encouragement. His next words shook that wall more: “Now everybody, fall down!” We looked at each other confused, and again Mark cried, “I mean it! Let’s all fall!” And we did. Then we learned to stand up.. “Now you know,” Mark said, “that it’s ok to hit the ice. And you also know you have the skills, knowledge, and strength to get back up.” The wall started to teeter.
Brick by Brick
In the weeks and months that followed, the voices that had haunted me for so long diminished, replaced instead by my teammates’—and opponents’—cheers. Together we celebrated our victories, with both teams cheering every goal—the score a formality. On the ice, I often found myself locked in a dance with another player as we held onto each other, trying to remain upright, ultimately descending into fits of laughter. Teammates tapped gloves, congratulated each other, and complemented strong skating and well-executed plays. At the start of the season, I’d chosen to play defense, the same as in soccer.
Each week, I kicked down another brick in my internal wall. For the first time, I was in a supportive and queer athletic environment, one truly and definitively centered around joy—yet still, a part of me hoped to score a goal by the season’s end. Chances of that seemed unlikely as a defender, and instead I channeled my energy into improving as a skater and player and sharing what I’d figured out with others. In the penultimate week of play, Christy Churchill stepped in to sub for our team, joining us on defense, allowing me to share some of my own knowledge and insights. Directly following that game, I in turn subbed for my first time, finding myself on offense. I noticed the stands were surprisingly full, the largest crowd I’d ever seen at one of our games.
After a few shifts I began to get my legs under me and my wits about me. Not too far back, this isn’t defense. Stay out here in position. Our defense was battling a power play, working to clear the puck. There’s a gap over there, go there. Suddenly the puck was sliding toward me. Without thinking, I shifted my weight, leaning into the spin as Robin Flick had taught me. My stick cradled the puck and I launched forward off my left skate, gliding with my right. It’s open ice now!
I glanced over my shoulder—one on, but still room. The goalie’s eyes locked on the puck, awaiting my move. The lower left corner is open. Shoot! Relief flooded my body. I’d done it, I’d actually done it. The stands erupted in cheers, but I could barely hear them—the goalie had just fished the puck out of the net and turned to me. We burst out laughing. As we hugged, I shouted, “I’m sorry, friend!” and they shouted, “Great shot, friend!” Skating back to my bench and hearing the cheers of my team and the spectators, I knew that one shot had destroyed my internal wall for good.
Ed. Note: We are happy to publish the Madison Gay Hockey Association’s selected essay each year for their league-run essay campaign. Any other LGBTQ sports orgs that wishes to publish essays or testimonials from their members should contact Our Lives at [email protected].