Before the White House called last month, Caitlin Cahow had thought she was done with the Olympics. Just two years earlier, a pair of devastating concussions had left the 26-year-old professional ice-hockey player and two-time Olympic medalist unable to think in coherent sentences. Or read. Or remember much. She couldn't stand for more than a few minutes before succumbing to headaches and fatigue. She had left law school at Boston College and moved home to recover with her parents.
But between January 2012 and December 2013, both Cahow and the United States underwent major transformations—changes that have unexpectedly turned the once gravely injured former athlete and the nation into gay-rights activists, headed to the Winter Games at Sochi to make a statement on the world stage.
Cahow was lucky: She went to Atlanta, got world-class medical care from the same brain-injury specialist who helped Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby return to the ice after his concussion, and by October 2012 was back as captain of the Boston Blades—the only professional women's hockey team in the United States. It was one of those comeback stories that sports fans love. But it didn't feel right. Every time Cahow got back on the ice, she felt like she was gambling with the health she'd fought so hard to recover.
In 2013, instead of trying out for the Olympic team, Cahow retired and began speaking publicly about her experience: For as little as the public knew about concussions in sports, she figured, they knew even less about concussions in women's sports. She hoped coming forward might help other athletes who, like her, suffered from depression as a result of head injuries. She found connecting with other people about the experience empowering.
But all around her something else was swirling that struck at the core of who she was.
"I started getting really involved in speaking out about concussions around the time people started talking about Sochi," she says.
The United States was already in the midst of what would be a monumental year in the history of gay rights: Nine states legalized same-sex marriage, doubling the number that recognized such unions; the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act; and public support for gay marriage reached an all-time high. NBA player Jason Collins and Major League Soccer player Robbie Rogers both made blockbuster coming-out announcements. President Obama, who only the year before had completed his "evolution" on gay rights, cited "our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall" in his Inaugural Address, placing the issue squarely in the broader context of civil rights in America. "Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law—for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well," he said.
And then, the following summer, amid violent protests, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into law a bill banning "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations." As Russia's relationship with the United States grew increasingly fractious—with Putin granting asylum to Edward Snowden, interfering when Obama tried to make a case for military intervention in Syria, and scrapping with the U.S. president over American "exceptionalism"—it quickly become clear that the debate over Russia's record on human rights for gay people would be the defining political issue of the Winter Games.
Cahow was watching and thinking about how she wanted to be involved. "I took a good look at myself, and what my career in hockey had meant to me, and my experience, and decided it was a good opportunity to be open and honest about who I was," she says.
Still, she was conflicted. As a 2008 graduate of Harvard University and later a law student at Boston College, she'd been involved in some LGBT-related issues on campus; she had hosted a panel discussion on the legal implications of the Supreme Court's DOMA decision as chairwoman of her school's Lambda Legal society, an organization focused on promoting and defending LGBT rights. She wasn't hiding; she'd just never come out anywhere and publicly declared, "I'm gay."
And she wasn't about to: The whole "coming out" process expected of public figures—the big announcement, the rounds of media interviews, the expectation that one will be a spokeswoman for a broad swath of the American public—bothered her. Cahow never wanted to use a media appearance to make an announcement about her personal life, and she ignored the leading questions she was asked. "I never liked the idea that I was being baited, because I think everyone's private life should be respected," Cahow says. Being an Olympic athlete was her job, she figured. Why should anyone have to make a major declaration in their professional world about their private life? She feels strongly, she says, that sexuality exists on a spectrum, and she was reluctant to label herself.
But Cahow is a huge tennis fan. She thinks Billie Jean King, the legendary former tennis champion, is the most important female athlete in the nation's history, if not the world's. And when King, who has long used sports as an avenue for social change, announced on the 40th anniversary of the passage of Title IX legislation that it was time for the next generation of women athletes to take over in the fight for equality, the message wasn't lost on Cahow. "There are a lot of women a generation or two generations ahead of me who were very vocal, who fought for equality—not just in the LGBT community, but for women—who took a stand and were fearless," she says. "We take advantage of the safety in our communities among people we know we can trust, but we don't necessarily pay it forward to those who don't have community they can trust. It was weighing on me."
So when another hockey player—a friend with whom she'd been discussing the issues that women and gay people face in sports—asked her to do an interview about Sochi and the Olympics for a site dedicated to LGBTQ athletes, Cahow agreed. She refused to declare she was gay, as the site had hoped she would, but agreed to a compromise: Her interviewer asked, "So, you were not technically out for your first two Olympics?" and Cahow said, simply, "Nobody ever asked." The interview went online and was picked up by The Huffington Post. That was November. A month later, the White House called to inform Cahow that she was under consideration to represent the United States on its Olympic delegation in Sochi.
And then, just before Christmas, the White House announced that both Cahow and King were going to Russia.
In accepting the president's invitation, Cahow became part of a tradition of American activism surrounding the Olympics that includes not only actions taken by individual athletes—most famously those of track medalists Tommie Smith and John Carlos, who raised their fists in a black-power salute on the podium at the 1968 Summer Games in Mexico City—but also those taken by the U.S. as a nation, such as the boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics in protest of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
In the case of Sochi, even as the White House tried to downplay the provocation inherent in its delegation picks, the symbolism was obvious: By sending gay American athletes who had proven themselves as some of the best in the world, the president was sending a message about what he thinks of Russia's treatment of its gay and lesbian citizens. ("That's not a message we would wait to send through this manner," White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters in a briefing made after the announcement, adding, "The president has been very clear that he finds it offensive, the anti-LGBT legislation in Russia.")
But to Cahow, being appointed to represent the United States in Russia is about much more than being a provocation in the ongoing Washington-Moscow spat. It's about representing a country that she loves, celebrating its diversity, and joining the tradition of women athletes who, like King, have long been the pioneers of LGBT rights in sports.
So Cahow is going back to the Olympics, this time to represent the United States in a way she never expected. "What I can do," she says, "is, I can go to Russia and represent a country I really believe in, a country that supports me, that's made huge changes. A lot of leaders have made big personal ideological shifts over the last few years. It's kind of amazing."
This article appears in the January 25, 2014 edition of National Journal Magazine as Standing Up at Sochi.