By Luke Lombardo, Mile High Run Club
The 1996 Olympic Women’s Gymnastic Team Final. I remember it as if it was yesterday. I was 6 years old, as I sat 3 inches away from our television. I was completely mesmerized. The Magnificent 7, as they are now known, were indeed truly magnificent. I watched in awe as clips played, detailing their dedication and commitment to their training.
“I want that,” I exclaimed as I looked back at my parents. “I want to be great. I want to train.”
Immediately I took to the sport I felt I had the greatest potential to excel at (and also impress my mother, as she had played in college): volleyball. While other first graders had their toys and gadgets, I had my volleyball. It never left my sight. For countless hours, I would play what I coined “stair volleyball.” I would throw the ball up to the top of the stairs, let it roll down, and bump it up and down for hours. I was Team USA. I played in the championship everyday. And I always won. Every day.
I knew I was different from an early age. I couldn’t exactly articulate why I knew I had to keep it secret that I had a huge crush on the Red Power Ranger, but I knew it wouldn’t go over well. So instead, I trained. It was my escape. It made me stronger. It made me more confident. It kept me going. It gave me purpose. And it still does today.
Once I was 12 years old, I was finally old enough to play for my school, as well as a Jr. Olympic team. In school I was scared. I was constantly worried about who was going to make fun of me, or who would “find out” about me. On the court, I was a different human being. I was confident. I was strong. I was unbreakable.
By the time I reached high school age, I was traveling every weekend to compete. It was my perfect escape. I could focus all my time and energy in my sport, and escape the reality of the anxious little closeted teenager I was in every other aspect of life, except for during my training.
In 10th grade I picked up a copy of the Princeton Review. I decided that in college, I would come out of the closet, but I needed to be in an open and accepting environment. I scrolled through the list of “Most Accepting of LGBT Students” and NYU was #1 on the list.
“New York University? Hmmm I wonder if that’s in Albany or Buffalo or something?” (I kid you not, I had no idea.)
I read further about NYU, and found out it was in NYC. Most importantly, I found out that it had a Men’s Volleyball Team.
“Ok. I’ll go there,” I said to myself.
I immediately reached out to the coaches, sending them tapes, going to their games, and going on visits to the school. Once I was accepted into the university, I saw a light at the end of the tunnel. My training had paid off, and now, it would lead me to a place that I could feel confident and strong, both off and on the court.
I moved to NYC at the ripe age of 18. From training all day and raising injured wildlife in my spare time, I moved to a concrete jungle that I knew nothing about. I let the city take me in, and lost sight of my identity at first. Suddenly my training, which is where I comprised all of my confidence and value in life, was put to the side to stay out until 5am and have boys tell me I was very pretty. I looked for validation in all the wrong places. I lost myself. My grades were slipping and my game was not up to par, so I had to leave the college volleyball team. I had given up what I worked towards for 13 years, overnight.
At first I completely checked out and disconnected from this reality, as it was too painful to admit. Instead, I took pictures and danced in clubs and based my worth on what men, who I didn’t even know, thought of me. It was easier to do that than to dive deep into my heart and realize I had lost myself. I felt as if I was moving through space each and every day, simply going through the motions and searching for the next high to build myself up.
Then came my guardian angel in the form of a track coach.
I was 21 years old and was chatting with my friend. He had mentioned to me that his mother was a former All-American at University of Oregon and Olympic Trials Marathon runner. I told him I was interested in the idea of running a marathon. I was very fast in high school, but was already so committed to volleyball, that I never gave the idea of another sport a fleeting thought.
My friend connected his mother and I via email, as she lived in Oregon. We spoke every day. She created my first marathon training plan, and quickly became my surrogate mother and inspiration throughout the process. I was training again. For the first time in 3 years, I felt alive again. I felt like myself. I felt confident in who I was and that I was of worth.
I went from staying out till 5am, to waking up at 5am. I went from drugs and alcohol to water and gels. I remembered how to internally motivate myself and find value from within. I felt confident. And I felt fast.
Now, 11 marathons and an IronMan later, I am still competing. I am still training. It has shaped every aspect of my life: my passion has become my career, which I am thankful for everyday. It has helped me through the toughest of times. It keeps me strong and it reminds me of my worth as a human being. It truly empowers me.
Luke Lombardo’s first loves are running and fitness, as witnessed by his credentials as a personal trainer, running coach, and fitness writer. Luke has been a dedicated athlete from a very young age. He belongs to a running team in NYC, and has also run marathons for numerous charities, raising money for children as well as for ALS. Currently he has a record high of placing 16th in his age group for the LA Marathon.
Luke's high energy, athleticism and likeability have attracted press coverage, including The Today Show, E! News, Good Morning America, In Style, NY1, Fox5, NY Daily, Metro NY, and Gawker, to name a few. Luke claims that nothing in the world makes him happier than helping others reach their fitness goals.