Celebrating Pride Month: A worthy champion, Jeff Cathrall
Jeff Cathrall’s words cut through the heart. Those inner demons that he had endured from an early age had nothing to do with tennis. This was real life.
“I spent so many years feeling isolated. I knew I was not alone, but I did not know how to find others without revealing myself,” Cathrall says.
“I was one of those kids who nearly killed himself. I remember holding the knife to my throat and threatening to do it,” he said, reflecting back to the darkness. All those moments of sadness, fear and pain eat at you. Being gay can feel like a slow water torture. A million tiny drips that seem to do no damage, but in the end you can feel like you’re drowning. Coming out was the strongest moment in my life. I was going to live,” he said.
One of Colorado’s greatest junior and collegiate tennis players ever, Cathrall got better and better as he moved up in age — top 50 (12s), top 35 (14s), top 20 (16s), and ultimately 11th in the country (18s). He won the Colorado state high school No. 1 singles title in 1984, graduated from Jefferson High School in 1986, then played tennis and studied at Stanford University, where he played on the same team with Patrick McEnroe. Jeff and his Cardinal teammates won NCAA national championships three years in a row (1988, 1989, 1990), with him clinching two of those team titles by securing the final point. He played on the ATP Tour for a short time where he was ranked among the top 400 players in the world in 1990. Cathrall earned his Bachelor of Science degree in mathematics from Stanford in 1990, and his master’s degree in mathematics from CU Denver in 2007.
Cathrall’s life has been filled with victories, but plenty of pain. He eloquently speaks of his struggles in dealing with his sexuality.
“Much of my life I spent believing that if people really knew who I was they would not love me,” he says. “Almost all of my achievements and success were meaningless to me because they would just be taken from me if people knew who I was.”
Cathrall, now 53, lives in downtown Denver with his partner/husband of 24 years, John Rulapaugh, and their black lab/shepherd mix, Pepper. He spent most of his occupational career in finance. He retired in 2017, but decided he loved to teach and currently teaches eighth-grade math.
Cathrall says he’s proud of his tennis accomplishments, more so now than when he achieved them. But he’ll never forget what was going through his mind as he was racking up the victories.
“Tennis felt like it was happening to me and not something I was experiencing myself,” he recalls. “Many times I felt numb and detached. I did not appreciate those accomplishments because I was too busy hiding and trying not to stand out. I did some amazing things and feel in reflection that I could have done so much more had I not been sabotaging myself throughout my career. When I look back, knowing all those places I held myself back, I am astounded by what I achieved. I do not feel regret or tortured by those failings, because I know they are a part of the DNA of the person I have become.”
Through all the personal heartache that Cathrall experienced, tennis was a constant in his life. It was a true family affair for the Cathralls — Jeff’s sister Jodi was a national level player as well.
And with him every step of the way was his mom, Judy, who played the biggest role in his career.
“My mom became a great coach and logged many hours figuring what next steps both my sister and I should take to advance,” he says.
“She sought out coaches as well as acquired her own knowledge of the game.”
“My Dad (John) played a key supporting role. We all played and enjoyed the game. I think that passion, talent and hard work are all key components to excelling at any venture.”
That time together, as a family, with the game of tennis, would become a huge part of Jeff’s life, helping to shape his will and determination.
“My belief in myself is strong. [Tennis] has given me a tenacity to become the person I am today. Many things have shaped my life in major ways. The three greatest influences were my family, coming out, and tennis — in that order.”
Cathrall says that after the day he decided to stop playing tennis, he didn’t touch a racquet for more than 10 years. He says he was exhausted and had enough.
“If I play now, it is not serious. I have no desire to compete again.”
But he’s still a competitor. It’s in his nature.
“I always play to whatever level those around me are at, and I am still competitive ... I play just well enough to win. I do coach, but I only coach friends and my social groups. It’s funny when my friends say how competitive I am in every aspect of my life. It makes me laugh because they have no idea the degree to which my competitive spirit soared.”
Today Jeff champions the “It Gets Better” campaign, which sends a message of hope to those who despair.
And his message to any youngsters who may be going through some of the same struggles that he experienced?
He says: “To all the struggling LGBT people out there, I say you are not alone. It does get better. And you are worth it.”
- Jeff's mom, Judy, was a major influence in his tennis career
- Cathrall played for three National Championship teams at Stanford
- In 2019, Jeff was inducted into the Colorado Tennis Hall of Fame
- Jeff's greatest influences in his life have been family, coming out as a gay man, and tennis
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