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Pride Spotlight: Nicholas Lee
Former Eastern junior Nicholas Lee can’t remember a time when he wasn’t competitive. “I have a memory of being six, and a coach I was working with asking me to try to make 10 shots in a row,” he recalls. “I distinctly remember getting fed forehands and backhands, and just being a six-year-old, getting into the zone and having that tunnel vision of trying to get 10 shots in a row. My parents have told me, and I have no memory of this, that my twin sister was at these lessons too. I didn’t even remember she was there.”
It was precisely that competitive drive that would propel him to major highs in the sport. As a sophomore, he played #2 singles for the varsity boys’ tennis team at Mamaroneck High School. A year later, he finished third in the boys’ doubles tournament at New York’s state championships, and he’d go on to compete for Vassar College. At the same time, Lee was coming to terms with his identity and trying to determine where he belonged as a gay athlete. Now obtaining a master’s in counseling (with a concentration in sports psychology) from Boston University, Lee spoke with us about his personal journey in tennis, his love of the game and finding acceptance and support among fellow teammates.
You’ve played competitive tennis for a large chunk of your life—what did you initially like about the sport? Why did you want to keep playing?
LEE: I really enjoyed the process of learning the different strokes and just hitting the ball into different spots on the court. [But] I was also just really competitive from a young age, because at one point I was doing group lessons with one of my good friends from elementary school. It was more for fun, and my friend and the other people in my group did not take it too seriously. And I remember getting frustrated because I felt like we were wasting time and I wanted to focus more on the point play. I was eight. [Laughs].
You eventually began competing in USTA junior tournaments. What was it like taking that step?
LEE: That was definitely a rude awakening for me. I lost my first USTA match 6-0, 6-0. And then my friend who I would train with beat my opponent and then either won the tournament or made the final. It was confusing for me because I thought we were at or around the same level. I think after that loss, I really became more process-oriented and set smaller goals for myself. First, getting closer to winning a first round—I don’t think I won a set until my fourth tournament. Then winning a round. Then winning more rounds, and eventually winning a tournament. [Tennis] is about grit, mental resilience, and also just really embracing the challenges of the process. There are no shortcuts.
How did it feel going through the ups and downs of that process being such a competitor?
LEE: I think I always felt like I was an underdog. Generally I felt that I was being underestimated or overlooked. And I do think the way that I was feeling back then ties into some insecurities of knowing I was gay. Having this inherent sense of inferiority and a constant need to prove myself.
You eventually did start winning tournaments and also played for your high school team. At the same time, as you mentioned, you were figuring out your identity. Do you feel like not being fully out affected you as an athlete?
LEE: I would say when it came to tennis, not being out impacted me more in practices and in training. Just hearing comments from coaches that were homophobic and feeling very uncomfortable. One time my friend hit some kind of shot that a coach thought was a bailout shot. And I remember the coach saying, “That was such a gay shot.” Hearing comments like that was very normal. But I did feel very respected as a tennis player. Freshman year, I played for the junior varsity team and didn't lose a match. Sophomore year, I joined the varsity team, which is usually made up of juniors and seniors. I won the majority of my matches and made the state tournament in doubles. [Not being out] definitely impacted me in the sense of my comfort level in the environment. There was a lot of heteronormativity that could be isolating, so maybe I was not getting the same psychosocial benefits that other people would get from a team—belongingness and connection. But then it was also such an individual sport that I could focus on myself in a lot of ways.
You started coming out your junior year of high school. Did you receive any support from your teammates?
LEE: That team included two of my closest friends who were two of the first people I came out to. I remember one of them said, “Well, have you heard of Robbie Rogers?” I actually hadn’t heard of Robbie Rogers [a former professional soccer player who publicly came out in 2013]. It's interesting because I had no idea how my friend was going to react, but it’s so clear that he had an image of what being an openly gay man in sports could look like for me before even I did. I didn't come out to too many people on the team. But being out to a couple of people felt like more than enough. I really felt like I had much more of a social support network.
After high school, you went on to play for Vassar College, where, from the beginning and for the first time, you were fully out to all your teammates and coaches. How did that feel?
LEE: It allowed for me to solely focus on my tennis without feeling like I was carrying this extra weight around on my shoulders. A captain on the team [who left just as I was starting] had also been openly gay. The upperclassmen had already had him as a teammate, so it just felt normal—a sports environment had already been set up that was very accepting. I could freely talk about my dating life with my team.
What are some other ways in which your team was able to show support for you?
LEE: One thing that happened…in the spring we would always go to Los Angeles to play matches. And there was a team at a match my sophomore year that was using a lot of homophobic language. They were calling a teammate of mine a slur and making fun of him for wearing pink socks. I didn’t hear it when it happened, but I was quite upset when my team told me to say the least. We ended up playing that team the next year. I happened to have three or four rainbow bracelets, and I was more than happy to give them to teammates, just to send a message to the other team when we played them again. There were people on the team who were very adamant about getting to wear them. Like almost a fight! I think one of my friends ended up wearing two of them. I don't think there were any incidents at that match, but it was just nice to have that very visible statement of “This is who our team is. This is what we're about.” [At Vassar] I also had helped form this queer, trans and non-binary student athlete group, and one of the things we did was get rainbow laces [for athletes on campus to wear]. My team was obsessed with them!
Looking back on your playing career, do you have a favorite tennis highlight or memory?
LEE: My sophomore and junior year of high school I made the state championships in doubles that they hold at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. My sophomore year I left disappointed because we played one of the top seeds in the first round and lost. Fast forward to the next year, I was playing with a different partner, and we faced the same opponents. We were very much the underdogs again, and we beat them in three sets. It was so cool. That year, the tournament was using the Grandstand court for matches. And it was very much randomized, but we somehow got to play on that court twice in a row, in the Round of 16 and the quarterfinals. That court can seat…I don’t even know how many people! I mean, there were maybe 15-20 people watching, but the sound of the tennis ball in there was just incredible. And we won both of those rounds, made the semifinals and ended up finishing in third. So that was one of the biggest highlights. But there were a lot of them.
What’s next for you? Do you have any further goals within the sport?
LEE: I’ll finish my program at Boston University in 2024, and I'd really love to work with tennis players on performance work while also continuing to do mental health advocacy and LGBTQ+ advocacy. And depending on how it goes, I might even become a licensed mental health counselor.
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