Merman

Meet the South Dakota swimmer who pushed back against homophobia to become Homecoming King

Meet Josh Sorbe, the 23-year-old swimming champion for the University of South Dakota. Sorbe captained the school’s Division 1 swim team his senior year, leading the men’s team to a second-place finish in the Summit League Conference. In a new essay for OutSports, Sorbe reveals that he once thought such a success would not be possible for him. The reason: he’s openly gay.

“I love South Dakota,” Sorbe writes. “Often, rural Americans are stereotyped to be roadblocks to inclusion. The people are generally kind, caring and community-minded. They fight for one another, but the stereotype of the intolerant few can manifest itself as the reality of the many in the minds of closeted LGBTQ+ rural Americans.”

Sorbe goes on to recall his struggles with adolescent depression and anxiety as a result of living in the closet. He also reveals that he endured considerable harassment at the hands of his classmates for his effeminacy. Worse, when he reported the bullies, the school refused to take action. For Sorbe, however, that setback proved a turning point.

“I realized I could coast through school and keep bending to expectations with disdain, or I could authentically pursue my own path,” Sorbe says. “I chose the latter. I learned to accept my sexuality and persona as a strength of mine.”

Sorbe opted to come out publicly after high school graduation. Still, after a lifetime of harassment, he expected to encounter the same thing at the University of South Dakota. Fortunately, he met a very different reception there.

Related: Stanford swimmer confesses he was kicked off team for drinking, NOT homophobia

“I was recruited to swim for the University of South Dakota Coyotes, and in my first individual meeting as an athlete with Coach Jason Mahowald I told him I was newly out,” Sorbe remembers. “The first thing he told me was that he did not tolerate discrimination of any kind and that we were a family. A family that looked out for one another from that day on — especially the LGBT teammates and alumni — that I continue to hold onto after graduation.”

“Most importantly, my Coyote family inspired me to improve as a human and be true to myself,” Sorbe writes. “I challenged myself and ran successfully for student body president, and later I had the honor of being named a Harry S. Truman Scholar — the premier graduate scholarship for public service — and become their development and communications officer as my first full-time job.”

Sorbe also found an unexpected level of social acceptance at USD. In addition to becoming team captain and a Truman Scholar, he also landed the job of Student Body President his senior year, and won the title of Homecoming King.

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Thank you, Coyote family, for the honor of Mr. Dakota 2019 ??? This truly means the world, and I thought the closing part of my essay below best encapsulated the love I have for this community. Go yotes always ? • • • Exploring identity is challenging and thought-provoking, and the formative years of college force identity into question. Growing up in the closet is dark, constantly feeling “other” during a time belonging is most desired. Luckily I had swimming, where I could dive into a pool and temporarily feel the confidence that I was scared to exhibit in the real world. But USD showed me that the community-mindedness of South Dakotans means we succeed together, fail together, and help each other when we most need it. Now, I dive into the pool as a Coyote with gratitude instead of seeking escape, because I know the 11-year-old swimmer would be proud of who he grew up to be.

A post shared by Josh Sorbe (@joshsorbe) on

“I still struggle in hyper-masculine situation,” Sorbe confesses, “very prevalent in collegiate athletics — but I was armed with the knowledge that my experience is valid and a necessary perspective for athletics to truly progress to be a place for all. When I would see new athletes, I always remember my times of hardest struggles — knowing anyone can be in that period right now too.”

“That’s my advice to younger, especially rural, LGBTQ+ athletes,” Sorbe concludes “Fight like hell, because your visibility matters.”

Well done, Josh.