Track and field star L’eQuan Chapman is leaping boundaries for gay athletes. The long jumper and sprinter finished his college career with seven All-American titles and recently competed in Team USA’s “Scouting Camp: The Next Olympic Hopeful,” which aired in August on NBC Sports.
The 25-year-old was picked alongside 91 other athletes for a chance to compete on one of four Olympic teams. He said he was blessed and humbled by the experience.
“My whole focus going in was to appreciate everything — put it all on the line, because you don’t know if you’ll ever get a chance like this,” Chapman told NBC News.
During the four-day event in Colorado Springs, Chapman competed for a spot on the U.S. Men’s National Rugby team. While he didn’t get picked, he said the experience taught him he isn’t a quitter.
“It was a big lesson in just showing myself how hard I could go and pushing myself beyond my limits,” said Chapman, who now has his sights set on the 2020 Summer Olympics.
The Shippensburg University graduate is focused on more than Olympic glory — he’s creating visibility for gay athletes like himself.
“I think it’s important to be visible, and that’s a big reason why I wanted to come out on a larger scale, because I know how I felt being closeted,” Chapman said. The All-American athlete wrote about his experience coming out to his college teammates in a 2014 column for Outsports.
“I think it’s important to be visible, and that’s a big reason why I wanted to come out on a larger scale, because I know how I felt being closeted."
In the essay, Chapman said he told his teammates he was gay in an email. He reread and rewrote the email several times before gathering the courage to hit send, he wrote.
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“It was super, super frightening in a way,” said Chapman, who feared his teammates would ostracize him.
But a few replies from his teammates put him at ease.
“I, personally, am a bit confused why you wrote this email,” responded one teammate. “It doesn't affect me whether you are straight, gay, bisexual, or transgender. You are part of the team and family here at Ship now.”
Chapman said it felt as though a weight had been lifted, and he saw an improvement in his athletic performance.
“I felt like I owed it to me and anyone who felt like me to be vocal and try to live as true as possible."
While most of his teammates accepted him, Chapman said he could tell that not everyone was comfortable with his sexuality.
“I will tell you there were some people at school where I knew if I wasn’t gay we would have been cool,” he said. “But because I was, we weren’t [friends], and there are a lot of guys like that.”
Such attitudes haven’t always been easy for Chapman to shrug off. He said he grew up in the projects in Reading, Pa., where many people had strict attitudes about how men should behave.
“Masculinity was pretty much defined in only a few ways where I’m from,” Chapman recalled.
The athlete said he was raised in a single-parent household without a father and struggled with his masculinity. While he knew he was gay, he hid it from most of his friends. He loved to sing and dance in church competitions but said he took up sports to hide his sexuality and be “one of the guys.”
“I was good at it,” said Champan, who was on the football, basketball and track and field teams in high school. “So I was like ‘This is my way to camouflage myself so that people wouldn’t think I was gay.’”
That’s something he said he now regrets.
“You have to be comfortable with who you are,” Chapman insisted. “If you think you’re going to give 100 percent to a sport and make it, you have to know that you yourself, you’re good enough, and that’s all you should have to be.”
In 2015, Chapman was named Athlete of the Year by the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association Atlantic Region. Now the Olympic hopeful wants to be a role model for young gay athletes.
“Honestly, that really motivates me to be visible and speak up and be as comfortable in my skin as I can to show other people that it’s alright and it’s cool,” Chapman concluded.
OutFront is a weekly NBC Out series profiling LGBTQ people who are making a difference in the community.