My story is pretty undramatic. I did get to the top as a coach – 3 Olympics. But to me, it was just doing what I did as well as I could, and in that regard, it’s not really any different from what everyone on this board, and everyone who visits it, is trying to do.
I grew up in a generation before the word “gay” even existed. In Middle School I knew I was the only gay person on the planet, because even though I had a boyfriend, it was pretty obvious to me that I didn’t fit any of the stereotypes. Still, I was at least 110% homosexual, and I started coming out to friends in my early twenties. No one thought much about it, and I think that was because they knew me and felt that I had integrity, and was a good friend.
What defines us as gay? (Or any category of LGBT?) Despite religious zealots, it’s not just sex. It’s that, gloriously, but it’s just as much where we perceive beauty, where we go for companionship and solace, where our hearts are, what sometimes surprises us with joy and sheer wonder. Idiots like to say “keep it in the bedroom” – but it’s far, far more, and far deeper than that, and more wonderful and strength-giving. I think it’s even part of how we play and perceive the sometimes breath-taking beauty of sport.
I started cross-country skiing late in high-school, and got really hooked on it in college. I had no idea about competing, but after I graduated early from the UW, I went to Norway to visit an exchange student I’d had a crush on in high-school (later married, alas, with two kids… ), and when I arrived, he told me that he and his friends were about to take off for a week-long ski tour through Norway’s Jotenheimen area – so I went to Oslo, and bought my first pair of quasi-racing skis. We skied over the highest point in Norway, and on the first day, we did 50 kilometers. That was my real beginning in skiing.
Back home in the spring, I decided it was time to apply for a teaching job. I went in on a Wednesday, and started work the following Monday! That was the day that the headmaster asked me if I could ski. When I told him I’d just come back from a skiing in Norway, he told me that there was a race that weekend, and I was the coach. So that’s how my career began.
Over the next few years I read everything I could find, attended every workshop and lecture, and trained up to 20 hours a week for skiing, often in pretty awful weather or at 10,000 feet on a glacier in Austria. I learned a lot about discipline and focus and motivation; I learned that performance is a three-legged stool: training, technique, and recuperation. (Coaches Tip: I think most athletes are weakest at the last – we’re all very ambitious, and because we want to perform, we often neglect thorough recovery. One of the top skiers in the world told me that “if you want to be a champion, you have to treat yourself like a champion – and resting and eating right are part of the job.”)
Gradually my high-school team got better and better. In 1986, five of them made the Junior National Team (one of them was to in four Olympic, and is now Head Coach of the Canadian Team, married, with two kids). One of the guys I was working with outside the school made the ’84 Olympic Biathlon Team, and in ’87, he talked the Team into hiring me as ski technician. He took silver at Worlds that year – and to make a long story short, I was ski tech at three Olympics, seven World Championships, and seven Junior World Championships. Being the ski teach involves testing literally dozens of waxes and base preparations to find the best wax/base for the day, and then apply them to the athletes’ skis. This means a lot of skiing – but it also means you’re in the ski room by 7 AM, and usually still there at 7 PM, and at an Olympic of Worlds, this goes on for two or more weeks.
Looking back, it all seems like a perfectly natural, albeit lucky, progression. I never had the motor to be a really good racer, but I loved the sport (still do!) and found my niche. I don’t think that’s anything that anyone here can’t do, too – whether as athlete or coach. “All” it takes is ambition, hard work, and staying focused.
Being gay was never an issue. I came out to my high-school athletes, and never had a problem, other than one parent, who realized he couldn’t do much about it and “sort of’ came around. When I was switching from the US Biathlon to the US Cross-Country team, somebody told the CEO that I was having an affair with one of the athletes. I told the athlete in question (now married, with two kids) who called the CEO and told him what was what. My contract came through a few days later. I think everyone on the Team knew I was gay; I was never closeted, but I always felt that I was there to support the athletes – so it was about them, not about me, and I never talked much about my personal life. The ones I did talk to about it when it came up, simply didn’t care, I think because they knew me and respected my work and integrity. I’m still friends with a number of them.
How did I come out to them? Well, some I just told, and I made it a point to tell parents, usually along the lines of “I want you to know I’m gay, and I want you to hear it from me, so there’s no problem.” Several parents wrote me notes to thank me for coming out and being a good example to their kids by being honest. Some went out of their way to congratulate me when I showed up wearing my half of the rings Chris and I exchanged, and several of them, several athletes, and many from my ski club came to his funeral ten years later.
I used to get tired of saying “I’m gay”, so at various times I wore an earring in whatever ear it used to be that meant you were gay (I forget), or a T-shirt with something gay on it (my favorites: “Please do not feed or tease the straight people,” and “I don’t have anything against straight people, as long as they act gay in public”.) I outed myself in an international ski magazine when Chris and I became partners. These days, I find it’s easier just to mention “my partner, Chris” as part of the conversation, and let people figure it out – it just seems more natural that way.
After my US Team time, I worked freelance for several counties, including Sweden, Belgium and Slovenia. The Slovene Head Coach asked me not to talk about being gay because of the very conservative people running the ski association. There was no point stirring things up, or making his job more difficult, so I didn’t bring my personal life up, but the athletes knew and couldn’t have cared less, even making jokes about who was “on top” when we shared upper and lower bunks. When I worked for Sweden at the Salt Lake Olympics, the staff loved to borrow my car, with its rainbow sticker on the rear window, and drive around watching reactions. They thought American attitudes were pretty funny.
I really knew I was accepted when athletes would make the sort of stupid friendly jokes about having a gay coach that let you know they like you (“Hey, we should have pink uniform for our coach!” Yuk, yuk – but the heart’s in the right place). A few still call me “faggot”, just to show they’re okay with it I know one or two of them almost got in fights with athletes from other teams who made unfriendly jokes or remarks.
I’m about as out as you can get, I guess. I started an annual Matthew Shepard sermon at my church 12 years ago, and preached several of them, and I got our (Episcopal) church to declare itself Open and Affirming. I’m very proud of that.
These days I’m retired from skiing, though I still enjoy skiing. I enjoy working at my “ranch” in British Columbia, I am finally learning to play a musical instrument (the viola), and I’m enjoying doing research on early Pacific exploration. And I miss Chris, who was the most important and wonderful thing that ever happened to me – including the Olympics!
In the end, I don’t think I have much of a helpful “gay lesson” to pass on. I wish I did. But if there’s anything to be learned, perhaps it’s this: that living your life openly, with honesty and integrity, and doing your best – these things win respect. I know that because of me, a lot of athletes who might have thought otherwise, are now staunchly pro-gay. One (married, the usual two kids – who call me “uncle”) even wrote a senior sociology paper about gay issues when he was in college – in a very conservative area!
I know I’ve been lucky, or blessed. My family, to whom I came out gradually but steadily by handing them articles and eventually by just being with my partner, Chris, have been supportive. I have had no big scenes or blow-ups. Some of you, unfortunately, can’t expect it to be as easy as I had it – and some of you, realistically, need to stay in the closet till you’re in a safer place, or independent, or simply stronger and more self-confidant.
But one thing is true: be proud of yourself, be honest with yourself, live with integrity, play your sport – be YOU. That is where strength comes from. Don’t settle for less than the best, in your sport or in your life. Never let fear win. And in the end, things will go well.
We’re lucky to live in a time when things are steadily getting better for us GLBT people. And by showing integrity and by being proud of yourself, you will be part of making things better.
Nat Brown taught and coached cross-country running and skiing for 16 years before joining the US Biathlon Team as wax technician. In 1989 he switched to the US Cross-Country team. He was the first American to take over technical services for a foreign team (Slovenia) and worked also for Germany and Sweden. He has coached at 3 Olympics and 14 World Championships, edited Nordic Update for 9 years and Cross-Country Skier for 2. He has written three books on skiing and training; the latest was The Complete Guide to Cross-Country Ski Preparation (Mountaineers Books) which has gone through two editions and a Russian translation. He spends as much time as he can at his ranch in British Columbia where he most recently hosted a pre-Olympic training camp for Slovenia.