Rugger Man

Pro rugby star Devin Ibañez on how coming out helps him play a better game


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This post is part of a series of Queerty conversations with models, trainers, dancers, and, well, people who inspire us to stay in shape–or just sit on the couch ogling them instead.

Name: Devin Ibañez, 27

City: Boston

Occupation: Pro Rugby Player. I also have a full-time job since there’s not a lot of rugby being played right now. I work full time doing maintenance for a non-profit organization that runs group homes for adults with disabilities.

Favorite Gym: I actually go to a rugby-specific gym. It’s called Flight Performance & Fitness. It’s owned by a couple teammates and a high school classmate of mine. A lot of their gym is based around personal training atmosphere, something specific to your sport. The reason I call it a “rugby gym” is that the two owners are rugby players because that’s their background.

Favorite Work Out Playlist: I don’t usually play my own music at the gym. But, if I was to choose my own, I lean toward metal: System of a Down, Lamb of God, something along those lines.

Recommended Work-Out Foods: Just after [working out] I like to have something like a turkey burger, with asparagus or broccoli. It’s just something lean with a lot of protein in it.

Best Workout Outfit: I’m usually very practical in my approach. I go in whatever I have on hand after work: rugby shorts, a beat-up t-shirt, something I don’t mind getting sweaty.

How do you balance staying in shape and having fun? I would say the best way to do it is to do it at the same time. I try to play as much rugby as I can, working on rugby drills, something I enjoy doing. When I do something like that I find myself putting in more effort than I realize. I get a much better workout.

What’s a basic, if useful, work out tip you can offer?  Take your time and do it right. A lot of people try to rush through a workout. It’s important to take the athletic motions seriously, to workout with a purpose.

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How did you discover rugby? I actually came into rugby because of a failed attempt at another sport. I tried out for my freshman baseball team, and I went in with no experience playing baseball and was one of four players not to make the team. After that I needed to pick up a different sport. I looked through the catalog of sports that were offered and settled on rugby. I tried it out and fell in love.

What kind of satisfaction does it offer you? There’s a tremendous team atmosphere, a lot of positivity I get from teammates that you don’t get in other sports. I tried football, for example, and didn’t have the same experience. Rugby gave me an outlet for my energy. I was very energetic growing up and I struggled with anger. With rugby, you can get things out in a direct way—contact heavy—but where you get positive feedback for it. That was something extremely important for me: to channel myself in that way.

Obviously, staying in shape—physically prepared—is vital to your career. But how do you stay in shape mentally? We hear so much about sport psychologists. How do you train yourself to stay focused during a game? It’s interesting you mention sports psychology. I have a sports psychologist I consult with. I also have other mentors who I confide in and trust. In terms of game day, dealing with anxiety, I utilize meditation. I really believe in the power of visualization and taking time to get mental reps in. Thinking about rugby, not just at training, but all the time, is something I felt gave me a mental edge.

So what’s your meditation practice like? Do you meditate every day? Usually, I’ll meditate leading up to a performance or something I’m anxious about like fitness testing. That’s when I find I get really worked up and start questioning how prepared I am for it. I’ll sit down and use the app HeadSpace to go through a guided meditation to get in touch with my body, how it feels and to ground myself.

How does that help you stay focused during a game? During a game, when you can get rid of the excess noise in your head, when you’re just focusing on yourself and your body and what you’re doing, it gets rid of those distractions when you’re actually playing. You know you’re prepared, and you’re in a calm mindset. You can focus on just rugby, which is what I love.

In your coming out post, you thank your boyfriend Fergus. Am I allowed to ask how you met? Absolutely. We met when he was here in Boston for a year doing research for a Harvard lab. We met online, on an app. We went out and we never stopped going out. It’s actually going to be three years on Thursday.

When you live in a closet, what kind of mental toll does that take on you? Your relationship? It took a really big toll. I wasn’t fully out in every aspect of my life. It was something I kept separate from rugby. My parents have known since I was 12, so that aspect was a bit easier. [Fergus] had a relationship with my family. They’d met, they got on very well. But in terms of the toll, it just got to the point where we had the conversation a few times if [coming out] was something I was afraid to do because of backlash, or because I was ashamed of him. You can have that conversation any number of times, but actions speak louder than words. So it started to impact me even more when I realized the impact it was taking on him.

What kind of emotional preparedness are you now able to achieve? I think, especially for me as an athlete, it’s one less thing to worry about, one less noise in my head. It was really difficult for my mental health. I just sort of realized that I wanted to wish the person I love a “happy birthday.” I wanted to celebrate my relationship with him. At a certain point, I realized I needed to do it so I wouldn’t have it weighing on my career or my personal life.

Since coming out, what kind of balance do you find in your life? The biggest change has been just feeling more care-free. I don’t need to censor myself. If someone asks me how my weekend was, I can say “I did this with Fergus” or “We had date night.” I just feel more relaxed around my friends.

What has the response been in the league? It’s been amazing. In terms of my teammates, they’ve all been really supportive. I’ve been surprised at the impact that [coming out] has had on people who aren’t members of the LGBTQ community. I’ve had teammates who are cis and straight men come up to me and tell me it’s extremely important, what I’ve done. I don’t think I was anticipating that level of support, and it’s been across the board.

You can’t play forever. How do you prevent the stress of that from frightening you? That’s a great question. For me, it comes back to staying present and doing what I can to maximize opportunities. I’m very aware I can’t do this forever. The way that I’ve compensated for that is by pushing and taking every opportunity to play as much as I can. So the way to keep it weighing on my mind is to do what I do: play and have a career that I can be proud of. When all is said and done and I can’t play anymore, I can say “I did all I could.”

Do you have plans post-retirement? Now that I’ve come forward as the first openly gay professional rugby player in the US, it gives me a lot of opportunities to be an advocate and speak to different teams and communities. I want to merge that with my passion for coaching and address communities in that way. So I’m going to stay involved in rugby far beyond playing. It will always be a central part of my life.

What do you keep on your nightstand? I have a picture of me & Fergus, one of our first pictures from when we went on a trip. I’m embarrassed to say I usually have at least a couple empty mugs. I drink a lot of tea, and I don’t take those cups out every day. I keep a pen and paper to make notes and plans, and I also have a whiteboard that I use as well.

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