Dreaming Big

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Gay. Vegan. Ironman. Maybe those are not three words that would typically be in the same sentence, but for Eli Oldham, the first two words are simply the young man he is. The third is in the pipeline. He has already completed the Longhorn Half Ironman on Decker Lake, held in October.

“I like the idea of breaking stereotypes and being a gay vegan Ironman,” Oldham said, adding that the half ironman entailed a 1.5-mile swim, a 56-mile bike ride, and a 13.1-mile half-marathon run. His passion was evident throughout the conversation, with most answers punctuated by the big, warm smile that anyone who knows him will recognize as sincere. Oldham, who teaches six classes per week and works as a personal trainer at Pure Austin Fitness, said one of his goals is to complete an Ironman triathlon in the coming years.

His aha moment as a vegan wasn’t dramatic, although he has watched cringe-inducing factory farm videos on YouTube thanks to PETA (People for the Ethical Treat- ment of Animals). During his junior year of high school, Oldham was talking to a friend about hunting and how he was against it. It progressed, having begun as animal appreciation, to being vegetarian for two weeks here and there, to ultimately making the decision to be vegan starting on Thanksgiving of 2005.

It was the middle of swim season and Oldham’s father, a longtime coach, was worried about his son’s protein intake. “I ended up eating a ton of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and a ton of tofu and nuts,” he said, freely admitting that being vegan in small town Texas wasn’t too bad, if you didn’t mind eating the same meals consistently.

“I love to eat!” he said, before adding, “I like to cook, but I don’t cook much.”

Indeed, his muscular physique and overall high energy level belies the stereotype of the vegan as protein-deprived or weak. Oldham credited his partner, Ryan, who is omnivorous, with cooking delicious Italian meals with a twist to accommodate him: think eggplant non-Parmesan. For Thanksgiving, which was spent with family, he enjoyed stuffing, yams, veggies and his mother’s perfected vegan pecan pie (no eggs).

The standard vegan questions and declarations— What do you eat? Where do you get your protein? Oh, I could never give up cheese—don’t phase him. Raised with chicken-fried steak and homemade biscuits, he does miss what he called the “eating camaraderie” of enjoying big family meals, featuring such fare as his mother’s mouth-watering pork chops.

Living across the street from Whole Foods Market is key for him: He might start the day early with Odwalla and an apple, have a banana and nuts a few hours lat- er, enjoy a bigger salad for lunch, work in a smoothie at some point, and have dinner from the taco bar or perhaps whole wheat pasta. He eschews stuff like to furkey and other wannabe meat products but adds that just because something is vegan doesn’t make it nutritious. “Oreos are vegan, but they’re so unnatural.”

His progression to a career in fitness was much more natural. Oldham was in the gender studies program at UT, but he’d always played sports growing up—football, track and swimming, to name a few—and he was thinking about changing his major to kinesthesiology when his advisor suggested he work at a gym first. After his first visit to Pure that year, he often returned, and that persistence paid off. Three interviews later, he was hired to work at the front desk, greeting everyone with a smile as they came and went. Oldham wanted to see if teach- ing and working as a trainer were right for him. He received his teaching certification, subbed his first class when another instructor couldn’t make it, and, not long after, started teaching his own classes.

2-2The gym was welcoming in other ways, too. “I’ve always been out at work. Everyone knew,” Oldham said. “I think all the lesbian and gay clientele who work out there are happy to see a friendly face. Pure has never told me to tone it down or not tell people.”

In one recent spin class, Oldham told participants that since the new Rihanna album had dropped, they’d be working out to four songs from it. He said that he has heard about other gyms not being as open-minded. Once he graduated from UT, he was eligible to start training people. His primary focus in terms of clientele? People who don’t typically feel comfortable in the gym.

“My biggest satisfaction is when someone reaches a goal or when they realize their goals are different from when they started,” said Oldham. “I want to help people find an appreciation that I have for fitness.”

That appreciation grows naturally, based on Oldham’s personality and work ethic. Kiran Hahn initially thought she’d do a few sessions and then apply what she learned on her own, but Oldham has kept her sessions so fun and challenging over the past six months that she’s continued to train with him. “I’m always impressed with Eli’s technical abilities—he stays current on the latest research and tailors each workout to each individual’s abilities and needs,” said Hahn. “I’m absolutely blown away by his caring, wholehearted approach to work- ing with clients. I’ve never seen anyone so dedicated to their clients’ success as Eli is—he’s gone so far as to do cleanses, run races or check in with daily text messages of encouragement if that’s what it takes for his clients to meet their goals.”

Oldham was recommended to Bethany Leigh Hubby by another gym-goer at Pure; she wanted to get in tip-top shape before her wedding and she ended up increasing her sessions to twice a week while also at- tending all of his classes—including Cardio Core and Dynamic Strength. “He strategically chooses music to push everyone and to have a lot of fun in each class or session,” she said. “It’s obvious that Eli loves what he does, values the needs of his clients and most important- ly, is the most successful trainer that I have had.”

The gym is also where he met David Smith, executive director of the Hill Country Ride for AIDS. “David Smith is amazing,” Oldham said. He’d heard of the event and was seeking an internship that merged fitness with LGBT and gender issues. Oldham had already worked on campus with the Queer Student Alliance, taken a course on the biology of AIDS, and done a presenta- tion on HIV. His enthusiasm and smile were infectious, according to Smith, who said that Oldham also came up with some ideas for spreading the word about the HCRA to younger people.

“He has a bigger-than-life sense of fun but can also put everyone at ease,” Smith said. “He’s compassionate and has a wicked sense of humor.”

Whether it was tabling different events or helping out on race day, he felt the rush of being part of something so big and positive (the HCRA is the second-largest AIDS bike ride in the country and has raised more than $4.5 million in the past 12 years, bringing in $598,000 last year). The following year, he led the Pure Austin team in the ride itself, and this year he’s involved with the pit stops through the production team. Last year, Oldham’s parents even proudly volunteered at one of the Ride’s colorful pit stops to show their support for him.

“Eli’s a role model because he knows how important it is to give back and to serve people who need our help,” said Smith. “He’s a beautiful example of someone who lives with the confidence that he’s okay just as he is, in a way that so many gay people before him couldn’t. This is profound, and it’s why we work for equality. Fear creates division and hate, so seeing people like Eli live without fear is the joy of our movement.”

Oldham’s mother volunteers with PFLAG (Oldham would later receive a scholarship from the group, which has two chapters in Austin) and has walked in the Pride Parade as well. Support from his parents was what got Oldham through his coming-out process. That process was, by his reckoning, relatively painless because of who he was and what he was involved with in high school. Meaning: This shy coach’s son (to be fair, although he kept to himself in the locker room, he was outgoing in the rest of his life), who played football for five years, was also in theater, on the swim team, in the National Honor Society, and involved in other extracurricular activities. And before coming out, he had girlfriends. All of which adds up to certain advantages, in comparison with some of his peers. “A lot of kids don’t have that—being in that accepted crowd. “I played that role that I think a lot of students don’t have the advantage of being able to play.”

Even so, coming out in high school (Remember MySpace? That’s where he changed his orientation status.) was not completely perfect for the young athlete. Sports, with its culture of hypermasculinity, is still one of the last breeding grounds for blatant or institutionalized homophobia. “In the locker room is really hard,” Oldham said, adding that he always kept to himself. “It was very strange being around all the other athletes. In your head, you play out the worst scenario possible.”

As we know from the realm of popular culture, sometimes the absolute worst scenario does play itself out, whether it’s a bully using the word “fag” in the locker room on Glee or someone getting verbally bashed on The Real World. Living in a time when there are a multitude of queer expressions in pop culture is a mixed blessing for younger LGBT people, according to him. “Now, you have so many different representations—I’m not complaining about it,” Oldham, who grew up in the era of Will & Grace, said. “A lot of [these representations] are still in the same niche.” It’s tough for younger gays and lesbians to balance what they feel inside and what they see on television or in movies with what they want to do, he added.

“I think it’s hard for them to realize that they can keep doing the same thing that they’re doing and have their sexuality just be a part of them,” Oldham said.

Our culture sends mixed messages about sexuality, but also about fitness. Buy this product, only eat this type of food, or try this fad diet. Oldham’s philosophy is beautiful in its simplicity: “I say, don’t try to make your workouts fun; try to make fun your workouts,” he said. “Find something you already enjoy and make that athletic. If you enjoy dancing, take Zumba or ballet classes; then, you can maybe take a spin class later.”

Teaching and training will probably always be a part of his life, but he aspires to something bigger, too. Working with nonprofits throughout his time in school helped to spark his latest dream: the possibility of merg- ing his volunteer work with his passion for fitness and desire to help people improve their lives.

“Maybe it’s going to high schools and teaching in after-school programs, or working with people who are special needs who don’t feel like their place is at the gym,” said Oldham. “Maybe it would be working with people who are HIV positive who don’t feel comfortable in a gym. Maybe it can be all those things.”

If he decides to make that dream a reality, there’s no doubt he will succeed.

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