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Thursday, June 10, 2021

Thomas Vanderbrook Carries Confidence and Self-Love to Trials After Coming Out

Thomas Vanderbrook Carries Confidence and Self-Love to Trials After Coming Out

Most swimmers train their entire lives for the U.S. Olympic Team Trials - Swimming. Some of those who make it to the Trials stage can crumble under the pressure. The stakes of the biggest stage in domestic swimming–some may say the world of swimming–can fill an athlete with jitters and butterflies when heading out to the blocks in front of thousands of attendees and a national broadcast. 

Not Thomas Vanderbrook. 

On Monday, June 7, hundreds of athletes walked through the neon-lit entryway onto the competition pool deck for the final day of Wave I of Trials. Many of those who made the walk-out journey were stoic, determined, with race strategy spinning in their minds and hype music blaring through their headphones. For Vanderbrook, whose dive into the Olympic Trials pool for the 200 IM would be the last swim of his competitive career, an idea popped into his head before walking out to lane two: Conga line.

He pitched the idea to Jacob Steele, his Indiana Swim Club teammate who would be swimming next to him in lane one, and the duo was all in. 

Conga-lining to the blocks, along with cracking a smile, laugh and dance before stepping up to the blocks, is a testament of Vanderbrook’s confidence in himself and the relationships he has built with his teammates. 

“I didn’t swim my best (in the Trials 200 IM), but I’m OK with that,” he said. “I’ve had an absolute blast this whole Trials experience. I keep having a smile on my face here. Earlier this afternoon, I was going through photos and videos from over my past four years and even before then, and it brought chills and tears to my eyes. It made me realize that I’m done, but I have truly loved every single moment, even through the ups and downs. I couldn’t be prouder of myself and the people around me.” 

Those ups and downs date back to decades ago, growing up in Louisiana.

Vanderbrook grew up swimming for Crescent City Swim Club in New Orleans, and later attended an all-male catholic high school. He loved competing in numerous sports, however he often felt different from others.

Even with the internal turmoil, he thrived in the pool, earning NCAA Division I interest during Louisiana’s state championships during his sophomore year of high school. Following Vanderbrook’s high school graduation, he enrolled at Indiana University as a member of their Swim & Dive team. 

It was there, during his sophomore year of college, he realized that he was bisexual.

He turned to his brother, Caden, to share his news.

“I told him, ‘hey, we’re really close, and I need to talk to you about something,’” Thomas recalled. “He actually came out to me (as trans) at the same time, and we’ve been a lot closer ever since.

“I was on more of the sporty side, he was on more of the gamer type. So it was a little different, but I think (coming out together) brought us a lot closer. We’re not always accepted by society, we’re building up to that, so I think it has brought us closer together and we probably will get closer as life moves on.”

While he broke the news of his bisexuality to his family at the end of his sophomore year, Thomas Vanderbrook waited an extra year to come out publicly, especially to his teammates.

For someone who built both a career and friendships around his peers in the water, the nerves of potentially losing those relationships after breaking the news of him being bisexual carried a heavy weight.

“I was worried about losing them (his swimming teammates), that was my main concern,” he said. “I’m very empathic and I hate losing people, especially those who are close to me.”

Thankfully, his teammates welcomed the news with open arms. 

Since then, they have seen him with more smiles, cracking more jokes and heading out to the starting blocks via conga-line on more occasions. 

“They’ve seen me a lot happier since,” Vanderbrook said of his relationships with his teammates since he came out. “They have seen me smile and be a lot happier with myself and can tell that I’m more comfortable with myself. I know they love me, and I feel beloved all the time now. I’m not afraid.”

For Vanderbrook, the most important component in going public was sticking true to himself regardless of how others would react. 

“Everyone has their own journey that they have to go through,” he said. “I had my own path and I wanted to come out when I was comfortable with myself. I knew that any way people would respond to it, I would be okay with it because I wasn’t going to change who I was, I love myself. That’s how everyone should think about themselves.”

Vanderbrook’s inner circle gave him the love and confidence he carried with him through the rest of his career. That stick-true-to-oneself mentality is what he hopes other LGBTQIA+ swimmers carry with them when they are ready to come out.

“Be true to yourself. You can overthink things during practice when you’re staring at the black line or up at the ceiling if you’re doing backstroke but be comfortable with yourself and don’t be afraid to show the world who you are. There are plenty of people both inside and outside the LGBTQIA+ community, and they are going to love you. And they are going to show that to you.”

This mentality is what led him to make lifelong friends through the sport and also what gave him the confidence to dance his way out to the starting blocks at the biggest swim meet of his career in the final swim of his career.

Vanderbrook was surrounded by a strong support group who showed him love and respect both during and after he announced he was bisexual. That support group, both for Vanderbrook and in general cases, plays an important role in helping people feel welcomed after sharing such big news.

“Have an open heart,” he said, when asked about how the general swimming community can make the sport more inclusive for LGBTQIA+ athletes. “You never know what people are going through. Whether it is in the pool or out of the pool – people have bad days. If you can crack a joke, or even just say something nice or smile to them, it can change their life.”

With his swimming career now in the books, he plans on carrying that uplifting spirit that confident personality with him into a career in social/digital media or at an Ad Agency. Regardless of where his career path takes him, he will certainly approach the next path being 100% himself. As for that support group and everyone else in the world, he has one message:

“Everyone should love everyone, that’s as simple as it comes.” 

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