May 2016 Issue of Sports Illustrated
Santana Lopez graces the cover of the magazine in an underwater action shot taken specifically for Sports Illustrated of her swimming freestyle. The picture is stunning, her left hand cuts the water exactly as the shot was taken and her form is flawless. Although goggles cover her eyes, one can easily see the determination in her face. The headline of the cover reads "Leading a Generation" with her name "Santana Lopez" printed right under the headline. The smaller news stories fill the sides of the page, careful not to distract from the beauty and elegance that is Santana Lopez.
Upon opening the magazine and turning to page 23, Santana Lopez is then again shown as her story is expressed throughout the next few pages. The first page is the same headline as the cover had but a different picture. This one is of Santana Lopez wearing a simple "Brooklyn-Hale University Swim and Dive" shirt and jeans. Her cap and goggles dangle from her hands as she sits casually on a starting block, overlooking the pool. Her dark hair falling perfectly straight down her shoulders. The background is completely black and the shot is a masterful. Printed in white in contrast to the black background is a small intro written by senior writer, Jeremy Lutz:
As I walk into the aquatic center at Brooklyn-Hale University, I see Santana Lopez patiently waiting for me with a notebook and textbook in her lap and a teammate next to her. As soon as she sees the crew and myself, she stands up and greets us politely. Her teammate smiles at me before turning to Lopez and saying "Gills, text me when you're done and we'll make a food run." And then in a lower tone, she continues, "Don't be too cocky." Lopez laughs and says, "I'll try not to. I'll text you after!" Then she eagerly turns to me with a mixture of a grin and smile and says nods and says, 'Alright, let's do this!'
The next pages contain the article featuring Santana Lopez and her pioneering values and views that are shaping the way everyone sees swimmers, gay athletes, students, and people in general. Other pictures from various meets throughout Lopez's career and a few more shots from the SI photo shoot are displayed with eye catching color and aesthetically pleasing placement.
Santana Lopez has been swimming for nearly a decade and a half but her real climb into swimming stardom started when she was 15, in 2010, when she won two Junior National Championships in the 200 free and 200 back. Her success only climbed during her high school years as she stood on podium after podium in big name meets such as; the U.S Open, National Championships/World Championships Trials, the Grand Prix Series, and the 2012 Olympic Trials.
Lopez swam plenty of USA Swimming meets as a member on both the U.S National Junior team and then the National team but she also became one of the best high school swimmers in history when she swam for William McKinley High School in Lima, Ohio. During her four years, 2009-2013, she won an unprecedented 7 state championships with 6 of them being individual titles. She won the 200 free all four years of high school and won the 100 back her junior and senior year. Lopez has broken and reset Ohio state records a whopping 14 times and she currently holds the state record in the 200 free and 100 back, where it seems untouchable. As a senior, her 200 free time would have placed her fifth at that year's DI NCAA Championships. Also in her senior year, she made national headlines for her performance in the 100 backstroke where Lopez and McKinley teammate, Lucy "Quinn" Fabray (University of Tennessee '17) tied in the finals while breaking the state record set in preliminaries the night before by Fabray.
Lopez's swimming never seemed to plateau going into college. She earned the nickname of 'Gills' by her teammates for her ability to hold her breath for long distances. She says, "On the first day of practice when I was a freshman, I showed a few girls how I could swim 75 yards underwater kick without breathing. They were impressed, claimed I had gills, and the name just stuck. I'll be on campus and someone who went to a swim meet will come up to me and ask me what my real name is."
And what a fitting nickname 'Gills' turned out to be. In only her first three years at Brooklyn-Hale University, one of the most prestigious academic institutions and a powerhouse in Division I swimming, she has become the most decorated swimmer from BHU. Out of her two dozen All-Conference swims, more than half of which are championships and out of her 12 All-American swims, 4 are championships, including a 200 free, 200 back, and back-to-back 800 free championships. She has earned Conference Swimmer of the Year three times and NCAA Championship Swimmer of the meet last year. Lopez is also academically inclined and has earned All-Academic Honors while majoring in chemical engineering with an almost unheard of 4.0 cumulative GPA.
Lopez also competes on the international scale for both short course and long course and regularly places in the top 3 in many events. Just this past summer, Lopez went to the Long Course World Championships where she made finals in the 3 individual events she was in and won her first World Championships as part of the 4 x 200 relay.
Lopez is the epitome of a student-athlete and her accomplishments easily sets her apart from her competitors but one more thing distinguishes Lopez from them: Lopez is also an out lesbian.
"I'm not your average swimmer. I'm not 6 foot tall, I don't have the classic swimmer's body, my feet are only size 7, I'm Hispanic, and I'm a lesbian. I'm a myriad of broken stereotypes but that's what makes me who I am. It's what propels me to get out there every day. It's cool to defy the odds and see the amazed looks on everyone's face."
Lopez came out the second semester of her senior year of high school, citing that "I came to terms with it pretty quickly and I wanted to stop hiding. It shouldn't be something anyone should be ashamed of." Ironically, Lopez says that it was Lucy Fabray who was one of the first people to find out. Although, they were not as close as friends then as they now are, Fabray has been there for her every step of the way. "Quinn (Lucy) is an amazing person. We've grown up together and grown as people. We spent years and years arguing but looking back but it was so trivial. If it wasn't for her, I probably wouldn't have come out like I did."
As well as being out, she does say that it's not something she'll announce. Although, most people now know about Lopez's sexuality, it always wasn't that way when she first started swimming at BHU. Lopez says that she was totally out to her team but it wasn't something that she wanted broadcasted around the whole country. Except, "Once the cat was out of the bag, there was no stopping it."
Everyone on the college swimming scene soon knew about it. It wasn't so explicitly public though until the 2015 NCAA Championships. Santana Lopez shocked the swimming world with, arguably, one of the biggest upsets in college swimming history when she beat good friend, Missy Franklin (University of California- Berkeley '17) in the 200 free. Lopez lowered her personal best by more than a second and a half while also breaking an NCAA record to beat Franklin. "Missy was having an off day, I'm sure," she said. "We all have them and she's beaten me many other times. And there's no hard feelings, Missy and I are super good friends and swimming won't ever come in between us. I'd always rather lose a race than lose a friend like her." Not only did the race shock the world but what Lopez said after the race really got everybody talking. In the post-race interview, Lopez was asked what motivates her the most to succeed. She simply stated, "God, my family, my team, my coach, and my girlfriend." This one comment sparked the interest of media reporters, sports broadcasters, and many more people all around.
"I know I'm a good swimmer and I know that I'm one of the best in the country," Lopez tells me, her voice modest. "Because of this, I'm under an intense pressure to succeed. I practice hard, train hard, and luckily, I've never had a serious injury since I was an age group swimmer. But at the end of the day, it's who I surround myself with that really propels me to do what I do. One of those people just happens to be my girlfriend. When I told the reporter that, people wanted to start controversy and act like what I said was somehow inappropriate and it's not at all. I've been with my girlfriend for almost 4 years, it's not like I'm using it for attention. Trust me, if I wanted attention, I wouldn't use being a lesbian. I get a fair share of hate for it too. But I've been called an inspiration and a role model and that is easily enough to cancel out all the haters."
Now, she's being called the "first lesbian college swimmer." Lopez herself though, doesn't claim this title. "It's great to be called that but I'm not the first or even the hundredth. I'm just the first to totally embrace and broadcast it on this scale. And that's absolutely fine with me."
Lopez is an advocate for gay rights and works closely with The Trevor Project and GLAAD for publicity. Lopez has presented at the GLAAD awards and has talked publicly about being a gay collegiate athlete. She has mentioned on numerous occasions that her sexual orientation doesn't change how fast she is or how well she swims and she really doesn't know why it's such a topic of interest.
"It's not like being gay is preventing me from practicing and training. I find it interesting that people are so interested but it's good at the same time. It's pretty easy to get caught up in all the politics around sports. To know that I can help show people that it's not a big deal and it's not some giant enabler or disabler means the world to me," Lopez said in a pre season interview last fall.
There have been many claims of Lopez being a role model to other closeted athletes who have come to her for support and advice. One of the most recent instances was that of high school swimmer, Olivia Bernalia, who swims for Rutherford High in Springfield, Missouri. This previous February, as a junior at her second state meet, she won her first state championship, upsetting the competition from an outside lane in the 100 butterfly. Later on that night, Bernalia tweeted to Santana Lopez " GillsLopez I just won my first state championship and afterwards, I came out to my parents. Thank you for inspiring me!" Bernalia's tweet received over 1000 favorites and a retweet from Lopez herself.
Her coach, Mark Carmichael had only positive things to say about her. "Santana has a certain personality that you have to like. There's times where she's brutally honest and really tells it like it is but she has so much character, poise, punctuality, eloquence, athleticism, and unmatched humor that contributes so much to the team. She's the one who always motivates the girls through a work, albeit while trying to barter an easier set with me. And yeah, it's cool that she's totally embraced her sexuality and used it to be this role model for other swimmers and athletes all around the world but at the end of the day, it doesn't matter her sexual orientation. If she was straight, she would still have this same impact on people that she has now. Santana is just a downright good person."
Teammates of Lopez also attribute to her personality and swimming. Former teammate, Kate Buckner (BHU 15') said, "Gills is a one-in-a-million kind of girl. You'll never meet another Santana Lopez. She has the biggest heart and would do anything for anyone. I love that girl." Fellow sophomore teammate, Jackie Sparks said, "I've known Gills for a long time, like 6 years, when she was still Santana. (Laughs) Our freshman year, we were roommates and of course, she was a great person to begin with but watching her grow into an even stronger person and swimmer was just magnificent. She's witty, sarcastic, and hilarious but at the same time, she's modest and humble. She doesn't realize the impact she's having on everyone who is around her. It's monumental. I've become a better person because of Gills."
Lopez is one of the most humble, passionate, and talented athletes I have ever had the privilege of meeting. She comes armed with an infectious personality and her overwhelming drive to swim and succeed while still staying grounded to her roots. There is not a doubt in my mind that she has already changed the views and opinions of thousands of people across the country and will continue to do so.
What's next for Lopez? She plans to swim throughout the summer under Coach Mark Carmichael through BHU Aquatics as the 2016 Rio Olympic Trials approach this June. She is predicted as one of the frontrunners for the trials and a definite medal contender. The sky is the limit for her and when she puts her mind to something, there's no stopping her.
I really liked writing this chapter. I hope you did too! This is the first part of a two part epilogue and I hope to have the last bit finished up soon here. Thank you for continuing to read! Please review and let me know what you thought! :)