Revealing the most intimate information about oneself publicly is a pretty big deal.
That’s what was facing former Buckeye and 2008 Division I NCAA Champion wrestler Mike Pucillo when he announced that he was gay in a story by Jason Bryant on TheOpenMat.com.
Pucillo said he wasn’t quite sure how people were going to react. But a strong support system — his family, close friends and Ohio State family — made the decision a lot easier.
“To me, I was at a point to where I was comfortable with it,” Pucillo told The Lantern. “I was comfortable with the people that I told. I basically just wanted to let people know and try to help educate and help bring it to the forefront just because I think it’s important. I’m comfortable with it now.”
Since the story was published on March 27, Pucillo said he has received hundreds of messages on Facebook and phone calls offering him support and thanking him for stepping forward and opening up about his sexuality. One of those phone calls came from OSU vice president and athletic director Gene Smith.
“I called Mike right away on his cell,” Smith told The Lantern. “I was so proud of him and happy for him.”
Tom Ryan, coach of the OSU wrestling team, said he is happy Pucillo has the weight off his chest and wants him to be happy. Ryan also said had he known Pucillo was gay when he was recruiting him in high school, nothing would have changed.
“If I knew Mike was gay in high school, the level of wrestler he was, the type of person he was, the way he communicated with me, and his family — it’s not a decision that I would consider to be a decision,” Ryan said. “That’s just my thinking. It’s about wrestling, coaching and relationships, and that’s what it’s about.”
Pucillo said he was a little nervous about what people who read the story were going to say, but added that he has since changed his mind.
“If there was going to be a backlash from somebody on the outside, I don’t care,” Pucillo said. “I probably don’t even know you, and if I do know you, I probably don’t want to be friends with you anyway. To me, it’s more about educating and letting the people know as a 16-year-old or 17-year-old kid, you know, in high school or going into college is a pretty scary place for someone. Let them know, ‘Hey, you’re not the only one; there are other people that are in your shoes. It’ll be OK.’”
Smith said the landscape of sports has evolved over the past few years when it comes to accepting gay players, and Pucillo said he agrees that it has improved over the past 10 years. But ultimately, Pucillo said he wants sports to be focused on the competition — not about sexual orientation.
“If you’re good at what you do, you’re good at what you do,” he said. “But the one thing I really want to stress is watch what you say. Because you never know how that affects somebody.”
He said locker room jokes and things that his friends would say, without knowing, made it difficult for him to be open about his sexuality.
Ryan said Pucillo should continue to be viewed as the champion that he is.
“Mike is a friend, he is a student-athlete, he’s a wrestler, he’s a son, and to me, he’s a child of a loving God, and I’m not in any position to judge. Nor do I feel anyone else is. I think one judges — and that’s God,” Ryan said.
Pucillo said he felt a lone during his time as a wrestler at OSU, and often asked himself questions like, “Am I the only gay wrestler?”
“There is a point where it’s just kind of a lonely place,” Pucillo said. “So I just want people to know that there are other people out there that are like you. And if I can ease the fact that they know that, then I guess I did what I wanted to do.”
Smith said Pucillo isn’t the first openly gay athlete from OSU and certainly won’t be the last, but none of that stuff matters to the university when it comes to athletics and education.
“Our athletics program is about people, regardless of race, ethnicity, sexual preference. We’re about education; we’re about helping people become champions and growing as people,” Smith said. “The reality is, regardless of your socio-economic background, regardless of whether you came from a rural environment or an urban environment, whatever your sexual preference is — nothing, none of that stuff, whether you’re Protestant, Catholic or Jewish — doesn’t matter to us.”
Pucillo had a phenomenal career as a Buckeye wrestler, accumulating 107 wins, three All-American honors and the 2008 Division I National Championship at 184 pounds.
After graduation in 2010, he coached wrestling at OSU for a year, but got the itch to compete again. He started wrestling on the international level for about six months, he said. But neck injuries that lingered from his OSU wrestling days resurfaced, forcing him to move on from competition.
Pucillo still is involved with wrestling, however, as he teaches private wrestling lessons on occasion, but is now more focused on his career outside of the sport in the Columbus area. He said although his wrestling days are over, he would always keep the door open to coaching.
“It’s always a possibility,” he said, “I’m kind of out of the wrestling world and into the business world, I guess now you would say. But, I don’t think I’d ever want to coach another college team other than Ohio State. So I guess if there was one school I would go back and coach at, it would be Ohio State.”
Ryan said he is also open to the possibility, but within reason.
“If I felt he were the best guy for the job, I’d hire him in a second,” Ryan said.
When the initial public announcement via TheOpenMat.com was released, the OSU wrestling team was in the midst of celebrating the 2015 National Championship. Pucillo said he did not want to take anything away from them, preferring to stay out of the headlines until things calmed down for the wrestling program.
Now that things have returned to normalcy and the season has wrapped up, Pucillo said he wants to be a resource for athletes and people who are experiencing the same problems he did as a student athlete and invites them to reach out to him on his Twitter account, @MPucillo84.
“That was the biggest thing,” he said. “I wished, when I was in high school, there was somebody that I could have looked to. Just to know that they are not alone, if they need help or anything like that, I’d be happy to get them in contact with somebody that could probably help them.”