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Esther Lofgren Headshot

Lean In and Speak Out

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As an American rower, Olympic gold medalist, and advocate for LGBT equality, I am a passionate believer in sport as a platform for inclusion. This strong belief was shaped by my journey from awkward adolescence, to athlete, to Ally. It is easy to recall a time in my life when I felt extremely uncomfortable just being me. I'm a blond, blue-eyed Caucasian -- a quintessential California girl -- but standing 6'2" and starting high school at age 12 set me apart. As a pre-teen -- that age when we all want to fit in -- I stuck out ... literally, towering over my peers. I felt so different, so unable to be what I thought "normal" was, and there was nothing I could do about it.

Sport provided me a chance to celebrate who I was and what I could do -- an opportunity to escape from judgment and from feeling self-conscious. When I was competing, no matter the sport, I was an athlete, and I was free to be myself. And eventually, largely through sport, I became comfortable in my own skin.

I am not equating navigating adolescence as an awkward, tall girl with the challenges faced by those who are confronted by cultural and often institutionalized homophobia. Rather, I'm sharing how I experienced sport as a force for inclusion and acceptance, not just for body types but for people of all different identities and backgrounds. Across more than 50 teams in more than a dozen sports (it took me a while to find rowing), it has been my experience that the most successful teams are those on which every member feels unconditional support.

With record numbers of people supporting LGBT non-discrimination in America, I have been asked why I believe that it is still important to advocate for LGBT equality. I've been asked what women like me can do to be more engaged supporters -- Allies -- when it comes to the LGBT community. I've also been asked why, as a Summer Olympian, I've joined the Principle 6 advocacy campaign in the run-up to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

When I first started talking about why I support LGBT rights, it was really important to me to emphasize that I am straight. I felt the need to clarify my sexual orientation because of the cultural stereotypes by which elite female athletes are often judged. My reluctance, the reluctance on the part of many female athletes to be stereotyped as "lesbian," highlights a form of latent but persistent homophobia -- which is why I think it's important for all women who consider themselves Allies to speak up. As women, and as female athletes, our passion, power and strength are often stereotypically linked with our sexual identities. We need start to changing these conversations.

Beyond gender, I think it's important for straight athletes to prioritize making athletic communities safe spaces. We have to recognize that a more inclusive and accepting community isn't simply created by LGBT athletes deciding to come out. It exists when we all -- straight and LGBT athletes and supporters alike -- make it safe on and off the court, ice, pitch, mountain and water to express ourselves to our fullest.

When initially asked to speak publicly about the homophobic laws passed in Russia, I hesitated. Not due to a lack of support, but out of concern that speaking out might detract from the focus on the athletes competing at the Sochi Olympics, who have trained for years to have the honor of representing their countries at the highest level of competition. But when I thought about it more, my mind turned toward those athletes who aren't able to compete as themselves, or may be at risk at these Games by being themselves, and to those around the world who aren't free to simply be who they are.

I believe that we can and should talk about human rights and non-discrimination in the same sentence as sports, athletic achievement and the Olympics. Fundamentally, the Olympic message is one of inclusion -- the celebration of sport and humanity and community -- the world coming together. When one thinks about the ideals we represent as Olympic athletes, equality -- including LGBT equality -- is important to uphold everywhere in the world.

Through my advocacy and evolving "Allyship," I'm no longer working to be seen as a straight athlete. I'm an athlete and an Athlete Ally, identities that don't isolate or segregate but that unify and support. I'm proud to be part of the broader movement being facilitated by organizations like Athlete Ally: athletes and people standing together for an inclusive community in sport and beyond.

Becoming an Ally began with my commitment to support everyone on my team in whatever capacity I could. As an Olympic athlete, I want to make my voice heard and show my support for athletes and people everywhere. It is important to recognize that fundamentally, sport does not discriminate, people do. And as people, we have the opportunity and the responsibility to continue leading an Olympic movement that upholds sport as a uniquely collaborative and inclusive celebration of human possibility and the potential for a more just global community.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post in conjunction with the Sochi 2014 Olympics. The series is part of our Impact Sports initiative, which examines the intersection of sports and social good. Many of the posts in this series critique the Russian government's draconian anti-LGBT laws, though other topics include climate change and censorship. Read all the posts in the series here.

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