Jeff Commings has done things in the pool that many swimmers only dream aboutand he's still a record-setting star at age 36. Just consider his resume:
Pan American Games bronze medal winner;
Former USA National Team member;
Twice competed in the U.S. Olympic Trials;
Gold-medal winner at the U.S. Olympic Festival;
NCAA All-American swimmer at the University of Texas; and
U.S. Masters Swimming World Record Holder.
And his most recent accolade: author.
Odd Man Out: True Stories Of A Gay Black Swimmer was released in May, detailing Commings' teenage years and most of his 20s, when he was afraid to live openly as a gay man among friends and family.
"I am still amazed that it's published. I am astounded that my life story is out there. I can't believe it," Commingssaid. "I'm now more excited than nervous; I can definitely say that, though I will say I was very nervous at this time last year."
Commings' book has been a 10-year process, though mostly a project over the past five years, supported by his partner of six years, Geoff Glaser.
Glaser urged Commings to pen his autobiography, though Commings said he "didn't know if people would be interested."
In late 2008, Commings considered publishing it when he had it finished, "and that's when he thought, 'It's kind of interesting.'
"I thought, if this book got out, I could teach someone about what it's like to be a gay Black swimmer in the United States, which is a very, very rare thing," said Commings, who began his swimming career in St. Louis at age 4.
"I'm thrilled to be able to let people know about a situation that probably is pretty prevalent in swimming, that there are a lot of gay swimmers out there who feel like they cannot be open and honest about their lives to their best friends or their family because society still doesn't accept gay athletes. I'm excited that I'm getting that message out there."
Commings' emotional, flowing journey showcases the swimmer best known for his breaststroke prowess, which earned him spots on several USA Swimming national teams.
"I'm not trying to sensationalize anything or dramatize anything; it's just very straightforward. I'm glad that I stuck to my guns and didn't try to make anything more of a scandal than it was. I didn't write the book to entertain as much as I wrote it to educate," said Commings, who won a bronze medal for the Pan-American team in Cuba in 1991.
Commings' highest showing at Texas was third-place in the 100-meter breaststroke as a sophomore. He ended his collegiate career as an eight-time All-American, USA Swimming National Team member and four-time conference champion in the Southwest Conference. And he earned a journalism degree, fittingly.
"I wouldn't say I'm a pioneer. I would just say that, maybe, I'm the first person who was bold enough to really say who I was," Commings said. "If there's any regret in my life, it's that I wasn't bold enough 20 years ago to do so, or even 15 years ago.
"In terms of writing a book about my experiences as a gay black swimmer, I hope that it inspires other people."
Commings attended two Olympic trials, in 1992 and 1996.
"It wasn't difficult being a Black swimmer," Commings said. "It was difficult being a gay swimmer because you're in a sport that, well, there are a lot of people with insecurities because, one, we're half naked around other guys for hours every day and, two, when the testosterone flows on sports teamsstraight teams, not gay teamsthe homophobic remarks come out. They may be innocuous at the time; they may seem so, but some are not.
"Of all the difficult things to write about in the book, writing about the time I was afraid to come out to my college teammates, that was the hardest for me. Writing about it really brought back the crippling fear I had through those four years of college. That was a burden, a heavy burden, though I didn't really realize it at the time. If I had, I might have sought counseling or really tried to talk to my coach or tried to find a friend on the swim team who could guide me along, tell me that things would be OK."
In 1999, Commings turned to Masters Swimmingand, of course, he shined. At the 2003 Masters National Championships, Commings won five events and set his first national record. Later that year, he set a Masters World Record. And more records followed.
"There have been gay Olympic swimmers from the United States, but they didn't come out until their careers were over. I totally understand that because I know who they are and know them personally, and understand why they couldn't come out when they were active in the sport," Commings said. "But, in this day and age, I really feel like there should be a lot more support on swim teams, but there is still that stigma, that stereotype.
"I hope the people who don't know me who read the book will take away a sense of wanting to look inward on themselves and say, 'Is there something that I'm doing that is keeping someone from living their lives fully?'"
Commings and Glaser now own the Dolphins of the Desert Swimming Academy in Tucson. Commings works full-time for Swimming World Magazine in Phoenix.
"I don't think [ the book ] will have any bearing on my job; all of my co-workers are supportive of it," said Commings, who anticipates people will approach him more now about situations in their lives. He knows he likely will be the therapist for the masses, whether he truly wants the role or not.
So, has the scene changed much in recent years for gay swimmers?
Not really, he said. " [ Swimming is ] not like diving or figure skating, where there are a large amount of openly gay athletes, or at least known to be gay [ athletes ] within their circles and everyone's fine with it. Since there has not been an openly gay Olympic swimmer in the U.S., I think there is still that stigma of, 'I guess it's not accepted' because there are not any.
"If, as a coach, I knew an active swimmer who was [ gay ] , I would really try to help them feel comfortable with it themselves because I think that's the first step. When they hear [ anti-gay ] comments in the locker room, they don't think that being gay is a good thing, so they don't feel comfortable in their own skin. That's the first step that I would take, to let them know that they have to be comfortable with yourself before you put yourself out there for others. And I don't think a lot of kids do that.
The book is available on Amazon.com .