As a world-class BMX racer, Brooke Crain aims to get to the finish line as fast as possible—always. But when it comes to her personal life, it’s been a slow race to acceptance. Growing up in a religious household, Crain always believed a woman was supposed to fall in love with and marry a man. As early as 13 years old, Crain knew that was not her path. But learning that fact and coming to terms with it was quite another. “I felt something was wrong with me,” she said delivering a keynote address at the Connect Sports Diversity Events Summit in January. “I prayed God would fix me.” Crain’s misgivings about her sexual preference were enhanced by her parents’ initial reaction. They were shocked and disappointed when Crain had her first girlfriend at 16. So, Crain, always one to please everyone, stayed in the closet and even dated a few boys. Only nine years later did Crain finally tell someone she was gay. How did her BMX coach react when Crain came out? “And…?” was his first reaction. He already figured she was a lesbian and didn’t care who she loved, as long as she was happy. It was a long ride to that moment.
A Big Blur
Days before the London Olympics in 2012, Crain learned she was going to the games. Her teammate had lacerated her liver during an accident. “I was balling,” she remembers. “I wasn’t ready physically or emotionally.” Here she was at the top of her sport, an idol to many young girls on bikes, about to compete on the world’s largest stage. Sure, she smiled for cameras. But, “I was the unhappiest kid,” she remembers. Rather than joy, Crain lived in fear. What would her sponsors say if they knew she was gay? How about all those girls that followed her on Instagram? And her teammates? With all those emotions bottled up and 24 hours to prepare for the Olympics, Brooks calls the 2012 experience “a big blur.” As soon as she returned home, Crain made it her mission to qualify for the 2016 Olympics and be ready.
Yes, Crain did make the 2016 U.S. BMX Olympics team. Yes, she was able to enjoy the moment—to the point she was making jokes about an upcoming wedding while everyone else was only able to focus on competing. And yes, Crain drove the race of her life. No, she didn’t medal—but came agonizingly close. Crain finished fourth, making her “the first loser” as she likes to joke. Performing at her best was enough, though. She was cruising downhill rather than pedaling uphill in the race of her life. By then, she’d met Rachel and her parents had done a 180. They understood their daughter was gay and accepted her and loved Rachel, too. Yet, Crain still had not told the world. She was still afraid of what others would think. Then, one day five years after first being with Rachel, Crain proposed. “I had her; I had our families; I had our two bulldogs—that was enough,” says Crain, the first Olympic BMX athlete to come out. Crain told the world on Instagram. She woke up to more than 750 positive comments, including from young girls saying her post gave them the courage to come out. She’d become the role model she needed at 13 years old. “I loved 'Ellen' but didn’t have someone to relate to,” Crain says, referring to the popular TV star, one of the first celebrities to come out of the closet. “My takeaway is sometimes society tells us to go one way when everything inside says to go another. We should have more compassion and choose happiness.”