Former U.S. National Team athlete and Team America member Hig Roberts is ready to choose happiness after coming out as gay over the weekend. Roberts opened up about his experience during interviews with Out and New York Times about struggling with his sexual identity, the evolution toward accepting himself, and his views to create a more inclusive sport environment for athletes.
Raised in the skiing mecca of Steamboat Springs, Colo., Roberts began skiing at an early age of two. He had a successful ski racing career, graduating from Middlebury College in Vermont in 2014. He was recruited to the U.S. Ski Team after college and skied the World Cup circuit, going on to become national champion in GS and slalom in 2017 and 2018, respectively. However, with the rise of his ski racing career and two national titles under his belt, Roberts did not feel like a champion.
Skiing was a safe haven for Roberts, a place of freedom and escape. That changed when in August 2016 his younger brother, Murphy, died after he had a diabetic seizure while on a hike, failing and sustaining a head injury at the age of 22. The sudden loss almost ended Robert’s career after the person that taught Roberts one of the most valuable lessons, to live every day authentically yourself, was gone. Not only was Roberts left hiding part of his identity, he had suffered a tragic loss and no longer found joy in what he was doing.
“[Being in the closet] took away a lot of the experience and the joy I could have experienced during this life and that’s a shame,” Roberts told Out. “I had moments of standing on the podium with national titles and still feeling depressed. I was almost in a daze because of the mental anguish I would feel. I had sleepless nights. I had anxiety attacks. I had big bouts of depression. I had to closet all of that from my teammates and my coaches.”
Many identify alpine skiing as an aggressive sport, championing strength and power, and separating winners by a split-second time difference. Roberts said the hyper-masculine environment permeated alpine skiing and put pressure on him to conform, especially while in Europe when being a professional skier garnered the attention of women. He feels the inherited nature in alpine skiing discouraged him from coming out, as it could for others. As an athlete, there was not a lot of space granted to share behaviors outside the norms of the sport. Now a retired athlete, Roberts felt inspired to speak up.
“As athletes, the visibility for LGBTQ+ people has been very quiet,” Roberts told Out. “There hasn’t been a lot of representation in the space, especially in alpine skiing, a very masculine, aggressive, strength-based sport.”
While he wrestled internally with his sexuality, Roberts saw himself begin to “develop behaviors of overcompensation and very try-hard attitudes.” He reports trying to balance feelings of being gay but also not truly believing that he could be successful in a masculine sport, becoming trapped by unspoken standards in alpine skiing.
Roberts remembers reading stories as a teenager about LGBTQ+ athletes, feeling scared and disappointed that he would never be strong enough to do the same. Fortunately, after his ski career, he found role models to relate to and hopes to foster a space where athletes are comfortable to come out and be truly happy while competing.
“I wish I could also look back on it and say, ‘I did all of that while truly being happy as an individual’ I think that’s a very tough pill to swallow, that I had the opportunity to be pursuing a once in a lifetime thing but I wasn’t allowing myself to even feel it completely because my happiness wasn’t there,” Roberts reported. “I wasn’t able to be openly gay and be the person that I wanted to be.”
Many believe sports as a whole have been too far behind society in terms of accepting LGBTQ+ people. Roberts now steps into the light encouraging others they are not alone in the journey, and to be a role model for other athletes in alpine skiing. While he acknowledges that it’s possible to dive into the darkest holes and loneliness, it’s also just as easy to change the narrative for oneself. He encourages others on the same journey to choose happiness and to embrace who they are.