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English runner finds acceptance at OSU after coming out as gay

Abbie Hetherington

Abbie Hetherington poses for a portrait.

Abbie Hetherington anxiously hovered her finger over the navy blue Facebook “send message” button.

It was summer 2015. She had finished her first year at Oklahoma State and was back home in Carlisle, England. A second year was not yet certain. The response to her Facebook message would heavily influence that decision.

After a year at OSU hiding her secret, Hetherington was about to reveal it. She is gay.

From England to Oklahoma

Hetherington was set on running at OSU long before she suited up for the Cowgirls. She started running competitively at 9 years old. Her mother, Julie Hetherington, recalled when Abbie first mentioned OSU.

“She had talked about it from when she was around 14 to 15,” Julie Hetherington said. “At the time, she knew Tom Farrell, who ran for OSU and Abbie’s club … (he) was the connection.”

Farrell, also from Carlisle, competed for the Cowboys from 2010 to 2013 and encouraged Abbie to choose OSU.

The coaches, facilities and culture of OSU blew Hetherington away when she visited Stillwater in February 2014. The team was what made her eager to run for the Cowgirls.

“I’ve never run with a group before,” Hetherington said. “Not many people where I’m from run, especially girls. I always used to run with men.”

She was enthralled with the group dynamic she saw on her visit to Stillwater.

But a question still lingered in the back of her mind.

“How would I tell people I’m gay?”

Feeling homesick

Like most students, leaving home the first time for school was emotional not only for Abbie but also for her mother.

“After Abbie left for the airport, I think I cried for a full week,” Julie Hetherington said.

After 4,373 miles of travel, Hetherington prepared to settle into a strange place far from home.

“When I first saw people wearing cowboy boots and hats, I thought it was a joke,” Hetherington said.

The joke quickly subsided as Hetherington found that adapting to Stillwater was more difficult than she thought. Homesickness was like a common cold, and Hetherington frequently found herself longing to return to England. She called her mother in tears seeking the cure of home.

Homesickness wasn’t the only symptom upsetting her. Hetherington still couldn’t find the courage to tell her new teammates and friends that she is gay.

Kaylee Dodd, Hetherington’s teammate and close friend, lived two doors down from Hetherington and could tell something was eating at her.

“I knew she was struggling, but I wasn’t sure why,” Dodd said. “There were times she would get really upset and say that she just wanted to be by herself.”

Hetherington said she felt that not telling her teammates about her sexual orientation was the equivalent of lying to them. She said it was like leading a double life.

"Give it a chance"

In the winter, tree branches become brittle, and ice can crack or shatter. As the weather cooled and 2014 came to a close, Hetherington’s situation matched the fragile theme of winter.

She returned home to Carlisle for winter break, exhausted from a mentally-draining semester.

“After my first semester, I definitely did not want to come back,” Hetherington said.

Back home, Hetherington received a dose of “tough love,” as her mother called it. One day during winter break, Julie Hetherington sat down with her daughter and told her the reality of her situation.

“You don’t have to go back, Abbie, but if you don’t then you will regret it,” Julie Hetherington told her. “You have got to give it a chance.”

Hetherington heeded her mother’s advice. The year changed to 2015, and Hetherington reluctantly returned to Stillwater to finish her freshman year.

With the new year, racing transitioned from the cross-country courses to the track. In Hetherington’s indoor and outdoor seasons, she grew closer to her team and found success on the track.

In the winter indoor season, she received her first All-Big 12 honor in the 1,000-meter race, setting a personal best time of 2:49.19. When the outdoor season arrived, she continued her success and even won the 800-meter run at the Arkansas Twilight.

With new achievements and growing confidence, Hetherington’s desire to share her secret to her teammates grew. Her teammate and friend Molly Sughroue noticed Hetherington had something on her mind.

“I could tell during the year that she wanted to tell me something,” Sughroue said. “But I never urged her or forced her to feel like she had to.”

As freshman year finished and students went home for the summer, Hetherington decided it was time to tell one of her teammates.

The message

One summer day in Carlisle, Hetherington built up the courage to send a Facebook message to Sughroue. This would mark the first time she revealed her sexual orientation to one of her new teammates. After plenty of thought and typing, she constructed a massive message, as she described it, to Sughroue.

Momentarily, her finger hung above the button that could possibly decide her future running for OSU. If her teammates didn’t accept her for her sexual orientation, she would not return to Stillwater. She anxiously waited for her teammate’s reply.

The nerves persisted. England is six hours ahead of Central Time. Hetherington had to wait hours for a response, but she said it felt like ages.

Finally, she got a notification. It was a message from Sughroue.

“Abbie, I don’t care who you love,” Sughroue typed. “I just want you to be happy, but also that’s fricking cool.”

In an article Hetherington wrote for Outsports, a website dedicated to athletes coming out, she said she felt liberated. She said she doesn’t think she will ever forget Sughroue’s response.

After two semesters of stress, fear and pent-up feelings, Hetherington finally found the courage to reveal her sexual orientation. Her teammate’s supportive and reassuring response gave her the strength to tell the rest of the team.

At the start of Hetherington’s sophomore year, as she started coming out to her teammates, their responses amazed her. Hetherington said it was such a good feeling. When she told some of the older girls on the team, one cried because she was so happy for her.

Hetherington vividly remembered teammate Natalie Baker’s reaction.

“I told one of my teammates the night before we traveled for a meet,” Hetherington said. “I hadn’t seen her much the night before, but in the morning on our way to the airport, Natalie Baker was so emotional and just kept hugging me.”

All of her teammates showed love and support. One of Hetherington’s biggest fears was that her fellow runners would treat her differently if everyone knew she is gay. Dodd, Hetherington’s close friend, assured her this would not be the case.

“Nothing is going to change,” Dodd said to Hetherington. “I would never see you any different.”

Positive responses like Dodd’s persuaded Hetherington to tell her coach, Dave Smith. Hetherington wrote in her article that after a core session in Gallagher-Iba Arena, she said to Smith that she is gay and had told her teammates.

To her surprise, he already knew.

He gave her a big hug.

“I already know, let’s get back to work,” Smith said. “Why would I care, Hev?”

Hev is a nickname that Hetherington’s high school friends and Smith call her. Smith recalled the day Hetherington told him about her situation.

“She came up to me anticipating a big nervous conversation that we were going to have, this big meaningful moment, but I already knew,” Smith said. “I thought that she had known all along that I knew.

“I do my research when I’m recruiting someone. Someone had mentioned it to me while I was recruiting her. To me, that didn’t matter to me.”

"Courage is contagious"

Hetherington realized no one minded her sexual orientation. She was still the same teammate, leader and friend in their eyes.

Since coming out, Hetherington has found more success in her athletic career. In 2016, Hetherington and the women’s cross-country team won their first Big 12 team title and placed seventh at nationals. Hetherington claimed her first individual Big 12 title after winning the 1,000-meter race in the 2017 indoor season.

Hetherington said she doesn’t think she would be the athlete she is today if she was still trying to hide that she is gay. Coming out has given her confidence in her athletic career and outside it.

Today, almost anyone who knows Hetherington knows she is gay. She proudly sports a rainbow emoji in her Instagram bio.

“OSU is a really diverse place,” Hetherington said. “Everyone is from all over the world, and although it’s in the ‘Bible Belt,’ people have open-minded views.”

Dodd said she is happy Hetherington accepts herself and feels the same way.

“For her to come out should prove that other people can,” Dodd said. “It took her a while, but she was in a new place where she didn’t know anyone. She didn’t want people to judge her, but when you’re around the right people, they’re not going to judge you.”

Outsports, the website where Hetherington shared her story, has the motto “Courage is contagious.”

Hetherington said she hopes anyone who is in a situation similar to what she experienced her freshman year has the courage to say something.

“I’ve never heard any negative reaction to me coming out,” Hetherington said. “Sometimes, it’s the people you don’t expect who are the most supportive."

sports.ed@ocolly.com