CSU swimmer Felicia Gilson cried when she was nine years old after her mother told her she was dating a woman.
She cried because society told her it was bad and she didn’t know how else to handle it.
But Gilson quickly accepted her mother’s girlfriend, Leslie, as another parental figure. It didn’t matter that she was another woman.
“As soon as she moved in, if my mom wanted to be with her I instantly accepted her. I didn’t rebel against it,” Gilson said. “My mom wanted to be with her, I was like ‘okay then she’s with her.’”
And why not? Gilson’s mother, Jennifer Chadwell, went through so much for Felicia that she deserved to be happy.
Chadwell left her home country of Germany to attend college in Texas. English wasn’t her first language. She had dyslexia. She became pregnant at 20 and still graduated with a 3.8 GPA and and an MBA.
“Even though they weren’t together [my dad] still supported me the best he could, but then he died when I was four,” Gilson said.
The family lived off food stamps. Gilson’s clothes all came from Goodwill.
When Gilson was nine, she saw girls swimming laps in a hotel and told her mother, “I want to learn how to do that.”
Chadwell said “Okay,” and took Gilson to her first club team.
As Gilson got older, she swam more, and loved it more, while adjusting to having two parents and a larger extended family.
“It became harder because instead of having one parental figure, I had two, and that meant double the punishment,” Gilson said. “My mom’s a little more slack on that stuff but Leslie, she’s definitely the punisher in the family.”
“I’m sure she did it for my own good so I didn’t turn out to be a bad person. She taught me more morals,” Gilson said. “With Leslie, her family came along and I absolutely love them. I think of Leslie’s family as closer to me than my dad’s family because my dad’s family doesn’t accept my mom at all.”
By the time Gilson got to high school, she learned that some people weren’t going to accept her family, and they learned not to talk about their prejudices around her.
She also kept swimming, competing for her high school team for two years before switching to competing for the Nitro Swimming club full-time because her high school team didn’t take the sport seriously enough.
Gilson’s parents both supported her and pushed her in different ways to be a better swimmer and a better student.
“I feel like my mom will be proud of me and I don’t think she understands swimming that much, but Leslie has learned times is actually a very big push in my swimming. I don’t know if I’d be swimming in college without her,” Gilson said. “With the academic side, I always felt like I couldn’t really slack off because my mom tried so hard to start a new life for me.”
When it finally came time to pick a college, Gilson and her family created a spreadsheet of all the Division-I women’s swimming programs and started hacking.
Gilson went on recruiting trips to Arkansas, Kentucky, CSU and Idaho. Every time she got back to Texas, her parents were at the airport, eagerly awaiting their daughter’s return.
“When I’m really excited about something I just want to tell everybody, so it was nice to just be able to tell them all the stories,” Gilson said.
CSU and Arkansas remained. Arkansas was a faster team, but Gilson would need to walk on and wouldn’t travel. CSU offered her a scholarship and an important place on the team.
“Leslie thought of it logically, like you’d get more money here, you’d travel, you’d be a big part of the team here and my mom was like ‘whatever makes you happy,’” Gilson said.
Being so far away from home for school hasn’t been difficult for Gilson, she talks to her parents every couple days, always updating them about practices and meets.
They watch as many of the meets as they can online, and drove to San Antonio for the Mountain West Championships in February.
Gilson’s parents took her and her roommate out to lunch at a barbeque place. It was the first time she’d seen them since Christmas.
On the ride back to the hotel, Gilson asked her parents to put on some music.
“Les was like, ‘Oh, we just became their personal DJ.’ We were listening to Childish Gambino and my mom had this horrified look on her face,” Gilson said. “Growing up with Leslie in my life has made me more outgoing. My mom wanted to shelter me, but Leslie encouraged me to be who I am.”
Because of that, Gilson is very outspoken about her parent’s inability to get married. They’ve said they won’t get married until it’s legal in Texas, but Gilson still thinks they should have the opportunity.
“Marriage equality, I think that should be a no-brainer. You can’t really choose who you love,” Gilson said. “I don’t think my parents are ever going to get married because they won’t do it until it’s legal in Texas, but nonetheless we’re a family.”
Love is love, even if it starts with some tears.
Sports Editor Kyle Grabowski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.