UCLA gymnast Kalyany Steele finds acceptance after coming out as bisexual
Felicia Hano fastened the cape around Kalyany Steele’s shoulders and Steele took off running. The rainbow-striped fabric flapped behind her. She wore the word “PRIDE” in bold, white letters on her back. She slapped hands with fans who cheered, smiled and clapped for the freshman who had just stuck her bars dismount. Only a select few in Pauley Pavilion on Feb. 9 for UCLA’s Pride Meet knew what the moment meant to her.
Steele came out as bisexual to her teammates only days earlier.
“It just felt like I was being celebrated,” Steele said.
After Steele posted a video on social media announcing her sexual orientation on June 30 — the last day of Pride Month — teammates, coaches and fans are celebrating her all over again. Steele, who describes herself as awkward and introverted, is now seen as a role model in a sport that often lacks female LGBTQ representation.
How she made such a jump barely feels real, Steele said. But she feels ready.
“I have been kind of wrestling with this idea about myself for a few years,” the 19-year-old said. “I guess now, I’m sure of myself.”
Growing up in Colorado Springs, a town about 70 miles south of Denver known for being the home of the U.S. Olympic training facility, there are “a lot of traditional values,” Steele said. She did not see many LGBTQ people. People didn’t talk about the LGBTQ community. So when she started “feeling butterflies around certain boys and certain girls,” as she said in the video, it was just another reason for the introverted Steele to feel like she didn’t belong.
She told herself to shut that part of her down. Don’t be the weirdo. Try to blend in.
After growing “as much as any freshman has ever grown in one year at UCLA,” as head coach Chris Waller said, Steele was asked if blending in was still important to her. She considered it for a few seconds.
UCLA women’s soccer coach Amanda Cromwell has prepared her team for changes during the COVID-19 pandemic, so the Pac-12’s scheduling move wasn’t a shock.
“Honestly, no, not really,” Steele said from her parents’ home in Colorado, where she went during the pandemic that closed in-person classes at UCLA. “With the UCLA team, I feel like your uniqueness is kind of what makes you fit in.”
UCLA had been Steele’s dream since she was 11. Not only was she in awe of UCLA’s talent, but she loved watching the Bruins perform with passion she didn’t see from other teams. A former elite gymnast who competed at the U.S. National Championships in 2016 and 2017 and attended three Team USA training camps, Steele sometimes felt like there was a “social hierarchy” in her club gym. She felt like she had to fit into a certain box.
Not so at UCLA.
“Every single person is completely unique and everyone totally embraces it and loves each other,” Steele said.
That’s what made coming out to her teammates easier in February. As she saw her teammates and coaches prepare for UCLA’s Pride Meet by ordering flags — not only the recognizable six-stripe rainbow LGBTQ flag, but also flags for bisexual and transgender communities — Steele grew ready to share her truth. She waited until the last practice before the Pride Meet.
Standing in a circle on the floor with her teammates as practice was winding down, Steele interjected. She had something to say. She has known this about herself for a while, but now she wanted everyone to know. She tipped her chin down shyly and said quietly “I’m bisexual.” Her eyes, with a hint of panic in them, scanned her teammates’ faces for reaction.
Norah Flatley stretched an arm across the circle and wrapped Steele in a hug. “I love you,” several of her teammates said.
The entire team embraced Steele in a hug. She felt relieved. She felt loved.
The poignant moment, captured by team videographer Deanna Hong, was the highlight of Steele’s coming-out video. It showed a critical piece when it comes to celebrating the LGBTQ community: being an ally.
“There are many gymnasts who are not LGBTQ,” said Hong, who is gay, “and I think it’s really important for them to see how to be supportive teammates and how to have compassion toward teammates that come from different backgrounds than them.”
There were very few conversations about LGBTQ issues in women’s gymnastics until recently, Hong said. Just days before Steele released her video, Florida gymnast Savannah Schoenherr came out as gay in a video. Waller, who has coached at UCLA for 18 years, estimated that maybe one UCLA gymnast before Steele had come out as part of the LGBTQ community. And that was decades ago.
Steele said the lack of LGBTQ representation in the sport added to her feelings of shame and anxiety while growing up. She didn’t have anyone she could relate to.
So when she stepped into the arena for the Pride Meet in February, surrounded by banners and flags that represented a part of her that she tried to hide for years, Steele “looked illuminated from the inside in a way that I had never seen her before,” Waller said.
“Physically, nothing had changed,” the coach continued, “but emotionally, she became proud of herself and felt like she belonged.”
Steele scored a then-career-high 9.85 at the Pride Meet on bars, launching her into a hot streak to finish the pandemic-shortened season. She competed in each of the last four meets, scoring 9.85 or higher in all of them, after competing in only two meets during the first five weeks of the season. She scored a career-high 9.925 against Utah on Feb. 23.
“You can coach an athlete as hard as you want and give them all the right physical tools and all the right preparation, but if the person doesn’t feel whole, if they don’t feel like they belong or they have self-love, then all of that doesn’t add up to them shining their brightest,” said Waller, who also adjusted his coaching technique toward Steele during the season after she asked for more positive reinforcement. “There’s no doubt in my mind that Kaly coming out and being accepted, that’s what helped launch her to her next step.”
In the gym, Steele’s next steps likely include more appearances in competition. Waller said she has the ability to compete on all four events. Off the mat, Steele still feels like that weird girl, though, the awkward teenager who never seemed to fit in. She spoke to that girl in her video. It was a letter intended for herself, but one that could have easily been addressed to any number of people struggling with their identities.
To those people, Steele said she wants to leave a simple message: You, too, can be proud of yourself.
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