Former All-American diver Greg DeStephen was first openly gay Mizzou athlete

Wednesday, February 12, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CST; updated 9:59 p.m. CST, Wednesday, February 12, 2014
Former All-American diver Greg DeStephen, who graduated from MU in May 2011, was elected captain of the swim and diving team his senior year. DeStephen said his toughest challenge came when a teammate told the rest of the team that he was gay without his permission.

COLUMBIA — Restaurant staff cooked enchilada beef on the grill. The capacity of El Rancho increased as college students pushed their way through the door for a spot in line after the bars closed. Greg DeStephen waited with his boyfriend to get food.

He heard some commotion. A man shouted, “F----t!"

It was directed at DeStephen.

Sounds of sizzling chicken, squeaking Styrofoam boxes and spatulas banging on the grill were pierced by that six-letter word. The rest of the man’s words are gone from DeStephen’s memory, but not that “F” word.

“I’ve only ever really been called that mean-heartedly to my face one time,” DeStephen says. “It wasn’t my favorite thing.”

The man thought he could pigeonhole DeStephen with a pejorative because DeStephen was with another man.

But DeStephen does not fit a stereotype. He was raised in Ohio in a sports fanatic family. He 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.

“Greg’s a very great representative of diving and the gay community,” says openly gay Florida State diving coach Patrick Jeffrey, who dove for the U.S. at the 1988 and 1996 Olympics. “He’s just a very good kid. He was a hard worker. He was a great athlete.”

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.’”

Hukill and DeStephen shared a love for Dixie Cream Donuts, songs from “Taylor Swift” and watching HGTV. Those things provided DeStephen distractions.

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.

Freshman exposure

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).”

DeStephen came to Missouri getting a 95 percent scholarship. The NCAA allows schools 9.9 scholarships for men’s swimming and diving teams. With 0.95 going to DeStephen, that left 8.95 to divide among the other 28 men in the Missouri program.

Jealousy could have been enough to make DeStephen an outsider.

But when a teammate revealed DeStephen's date with a guy, the 5-foot-8 diver's chance at acceptance that year ended.

“For the divers, it wasn’t that big of a deal,” says Ryan Meeker, a diver and DeStephen’s roommate when they were freshmen. “For some of the older swimmers, especially, I think they may have felt uncomfortable with it. They didn’t spend as much time around Greg. … I did definitely notice there was a little friction there for sure.”

The older swimmers ignored him and treated him like he was not there. They did not sit with him for meals at the Mizzou Athletics Training Complex. If they saw him at a party, members of the men’s swim team avoided talking with him.

“I probably wasn’t being invited to a lot of stuff,” DeStephen says. “When you’re on a team of that size and you’re together that much and you have to count on each other to compete and really make an impact, I think it’s always a good thing to have that connection to be able to count on them. It also drives you to want to do better for those people. … That was missing.”

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.”

Falling in love

DeStephen spent the summer after his freshman year in a back brace and back in the closet.

He returned home to Columbus, Ohio, and worked as an intern with Nestle. He had yet to tell his parents he was gay.

He wound up in the back brace after attempting a front 3 1/2 pike off the 3-meter springboard at Ohio State’s aquatic center. The dive — which involved DeStephen performing 3 1/2 somersaults with his knees straightened and his body bent forward at the waist, leaving little gap between his upper body and his legs — went fine, but he could not move for 10 seconds in the water. An orthopedic surgeon found DeStephen had aggravated a fracture in his spine that had been there for months. His injury meant no diving from June to October.

Without diving, DeStephen found his first boyfriend.

A mutual friend introduced them at a party. They exchanged numbers. They started talking.

DeStephen desired to have his first relationship, and they became “involved” off and on for nearly nine months.

“I think it was just something that I wanted to experience at that time,” DeStephen says. “It’s something that I’d never had in my life. It was important to me to just have that experience. I think it was pushed a little bit hard and maybe not with the right person.”

The only time DeStephen remembers crying in college was during a trying time with his boyfriend.

But he also made DeStephen happy. Being able to say for the first time that he had a boyfriend was "relieving.”

The negatives were eventually too much, and 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.”

The story

In May of his sophomore year, DeStephen read a story on 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 ( 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. 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.

With astonishment, DeStephen posted on his Facebook page that day: “the front page of…what?”

It was the first time he made a Facebook post indicating he was gay. There was nothing more to hide.

“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.”

End of the Tiger's tale

He was free.

His team knew. His parents knew. The world knew.

He was done with serious boyfriends for the rest of college. His focus was diving.

But being honest about his sexuality gave DeStephen a new identity.

He was the openly gay Missouri athlete.

“For a long time, I didn’t want to have the reputation as the gay athlete,” DeStephen says. “I wanted people to get to know who I was and learn that’s a part of who I am. That’s not who I am. The fact of the matter is, when you are not a part of the norm, that’s what you are usually associated with. I feel like throughout the athletic department for a long time, that is what people related me to.”

By the end of his junior year, the swimming and diving team knew DeStephen for more than his sexuality. The team elected him captain for the 2009-10 season.

DeStephen’s senior year was Brian Hoffer’s 18th year as Missouri swimming and diving head coach, and the first time during Hoffer's tenure that a male diver had been elected captain.

“It was really apparent that there was a respect from the team,” Hoffer says. “They respected him as a person and respected him as an athlete and, obviously, elected him a team captain. … I’m really proud of the team for doing that.”

The respect for DeStephen came from his effort in practice and in the weight room. The 5-foot-8, 150-pound diver could squat 325 pounds as a senior. His thighs were so muscular that his teammates started calling him "Quadzilla," a play on the name of Japan's most famous monster.

A football underclassman tried to correct DeStephen’s lifting form once, late in his career. The lineman stood half a foot taller than DeStephen, but the diver politely let the lineman know that he could lift more with his legs than half the football players.

“In working with athletes, there are those that choose to separate themselves from the norm and outwork everyone else, regardless of the circumstances. Greg is that type,” Missouri weightlifting coach Tyler Looney said when nominating DeStephen to represent Missouri as a 2010 All-American Strength and Conditioning Athlete of the Year.

His hard work was derailed when he caught the flu in 2009 on the wrong weekend, causing him to miss that year's NCAA meet. He returned to NCAAs in 2010 and captured three All-American honors in his final collegiate meet.

A few weeks after the NCAA meet, DeStephen represented the U.S. at the Canada Cup. He says representing the country is the highlight of his diving career.

But it also marked the beginning of the end.

That August, DeStephen remembers talking to a club diving coach while waiting to compete at the U.S. Nationals and saying, “I don’t really know if this is something I want anymore.” DeStephen proceeded to have what he calls “the best meet of my life.”

He followed that meet with a break from diving. September arrived, and his passion was still gone. DeStephen decided he was done diving.

He graduated in May 2011 with a bachelor’s degree in banking and finance.

Making change

DeStephen now lives in Dallas and is a college recruiter for Ernst & Young.

After two years at a different company in St. Louis, he moved in July to Dallas, where, he says, his new employers make him feel comfortable about being openly gay. He recently started pursuing speaking opportunities to discuss being an out athlete. The website in November listed DeStephen as one of 107 LGBT athletes, coaches and administrators willing to share their stories.

“I felt for a long time that if I ever have the ability to change things for the better, that I would do that,” DeStephen says. “It is something that I’ve thought about a lot growing up and, especially, now.”

Part of that change involves ending the misconception that homosexuality defines a person.

DeStephen will probably never know if the man who confronted him at El Rancho has since changed his views on gay people. But he witnessed a transformation in acceptance among Missouri athletes. He went from outcast to team captain on the swimming and diving team.

He created an environment wherein Missouri swimmer Vito Cammisano came out to the team in 2011 and says he experienced zero anti-gay sentiment.

“I’m completely appreciative that Greg did everything he could to make that possible for people that came after him,” says Cammisano, who swam for Missouri from 2009 to 2012.

Sometimes, DeStephen saw acceptance change in the span of one night.

Near the end of his college career, DeStephen and some other athletes were drinking and preparing to go downtown. As they got in a car to head to Field House, wrestler Nick Marable told DeStephen: “You’re really cool for a gay guy.”

A multitude of ways to interpret that statement flashed through DeStephen’s head, but he settled on saying, “Thanks.”

“I saw it as perspectives changing,” he says now.

He didn’t know that night Marable would become a good friend, but he knew the wrestler's heart was in the right place.

DeStephen says, “He had a certain view of what a gay guy was supposed to be, and I didn’t fit into that box.”

Supervising editor is Mark Selig.

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