In the back of my mind, I think I always knew about my sexuality. For one, I wore knee length khaki shorts, Nike sneakers, and a sporty t-shirt almost every day in middle school. I was the spitting image of a prepubescent tom-boy that was a little too excited to play the “husband” during house at recess so I could hold hands with a pretty girl. I was bullied all throughout elementary school and middle school for not dressing like the other girls, or because I loved playing sports with the boys.

I didn’t know why I was different, but I was. At that age, I couldn’t comprehend what it meant to be lesbian or bisexual. All I knew was that I liked dressing sporty, playing basketball and softball, and that I was slightly obsessed with the popular girls at school.

My love for sports was a continuous escape from the mental torture I put myself through for being different. I played basketball and softball on extremely competitive travel teams. This forced me to train constantly, and as a result, I put my emotions on the back burner.

At fourteen years old, in the middle of my freshman year of high school, the distractions I used to occupy my mind became less efficient at helping me avoid the inevitable.

This happened because I became obsessed with Alabama Softball. I religiously followed the team, knew all the players, and talked about them just enough for my teammates to start raising their eyebrows and asking questions. Of course, I denied everything, claiming it was their style of play I admired. While this was true, it was not true to the extent that I emphatically tried to explain to my teammates.

I started making my computer backgrounds and phone backgrounds pictures of players on the Alabama team. While I told myself it was for inspiration, my subconscious knew that wasn’t the sole purpose. I forced myself to develop crushes on boys. I made it known to my entire friend group that I liked certain boys at school to distract myself from the mental anguish of my complex emotions. I even went as far as to occasionally make homophobic comments to really mask the true me inside.

I did such a good job of selling it, my entire basketball team crowned me “the most boy crazy girl” in school.

At times, I felt like I was living a double life. There was the fake me that pretended to have a crush on every testosterone-filled body that walked by, and then there was the real me — the one who, deep down, knew her obsession with certain strong female icons was a little more than just inspiration itself.

This is where sports began to play a bigger role in my life. As an athlete, sexual preference, gender-identity, and emotional hardship don’t follow you to the court or the field. When I was at practice, the world was simple. All that mattered was the next rep, the next play, and the unity of working together with a team. It wasn’t a coincidence that I finally developed the bravery to accept my true self while I was on the field.

I was sixteen years old when I had the “ah-ha” moment. I remember I was in the outfield fielding balls for batting practice when I started to succumb to the pressure of my thoughts. I just kept repeating the same words over and over in my head: “Maybe you’re just gay.”

Later that night, I fought back tears and laid on my bed staring at the ceiling trying to pull myself together to make sense of my thoughts. I was terrified to truly acknowledge my feelings. But the more I processed my emotions, the more I began to feel this overwhelming sense of relief. The weight was lifted off my shoulders. I’d finally come out to myself.

That was step one. The next step was the hardest, and that was coming out to everyone else.

I told my closest friend that night that I may like girls. She welcomed me with open arms and told me that being gay just made me uniquely myself. Her response was a big reason I developed the courage to continue coming out at such a young age.

The more I came out, the more I realized which people I needed in my life, and which I didn’t. I was ridiculed and judged by many, but I found support from my teammates and closest friends. And by surrounding myself with people who accepted me, I grew stronger.

Sport continued to build me up, even when I struggled with the judgement from others. There were many times when I felt like I had to apologize for my sexuality. Yet, on the court and the field, I didn’t have to apologize to anyone. There was no judgement. And in sports, you don’t have to apologize. The game accepts you for who you are.

Soon, all of my varsity basketball and softball teammates came to close supporters. They loved me because I was Casey Maggiore. The real Casey Maggiore.

This support from teammates and friends carried over into college at Tufts University. The athletes there inspired me to not just be out about my sexuality, but to openly fight for the broader LGBTQ+ community.

Growing up, I had to be my own gay hero because I had no one to look up to for guidance. I know that if I had someone to tell me it was going to be okay, I wouldn’t have gone through the mental anguish I did. At Tufts, I wanted to create something where everyone, regardless of their sexual preference or gender identity, would be welcome. With the encouragement and support of an inspirational Tufts’ men’s soccer player, I crafted the idea of Pride Games: a spring sport event where spring sport teams play a game in honor of the LGBTQ+ Community.

I was nervous that there would be backlash, but on the day of the event, the support was overwhelming and heartwarming. The Pride Games created an environment full of smiles and acceptance that allowed people to be uniquely themselves. They were yet another example of how sports can be used to unify the world.

It’s been five years since I came out, and each year I come to appreciate sports that much more for allowing me to develop into a person I am proud of. There is no greater environment in which to thrive in and become yourself.

It’s through sports that I became not only a better athlete, but a truer Casey Maggiore —  a softball-loving, dog-adoring, goofy badass who is unapologetically herself. And it’s through sports that I believe we can build a more accepting and generous world.