For years, Abi Liu was out, but not out. In her role as the head coach of 150 age group swimmers at Peak Swimming in San Jose, Calif., she was and still is, working with youth. In addition to the swim team, she is also running two swim schools, Saratoga Star Aquatics and Milpitas Star Aquatics with 4,500 students weekly.
The kids always seemed to pick up on things, but she was guarded around the parents. In 2013, Liu was falling in love and when her future wife came to see her at work, she couldn’t hold back anymore.
“That moment was really the turning point,” says Liu. “When KR arrived at the pool, I ran out and we hugged and kissed. The parents saw it and just smiled.”
Still, with her career focused on youth swimmers, Liu hadn’t had much interaction with out adult athletes. That all changed in April when she was asked to coach 40 LGBT masters swimmers at a training camp in Fort Lauderdale hosted by Team New York Aquatics. She wasn’t sure what she was walking into, but found a pleasant surprise when she arrived.
“It was like I returned to the mother ship,” Liu says. “I found a like-minded community that felt like my home team. I was even cracking dirty jokes.”
Liu was raised in Wenzhou, China and started swimming at age eight. In 1989 at age 13, she captured a title at the Chinese Junior National Championships and was recruited to the Chinese National Team. She would spend the next eight years of her life inside of what is commonly referred to as the Chinese Sports Machine.
“My parents wanted me to stay home and finish school, but this was my dream come true,” says Liu. “Twenty family members came to see me off on the bus and there were a lot of tears.”
As a national team member, Liu lived in a dorm with other athletes in Beijing, ate in the dorm and wore a uniform with the Chinese national emblem. Her dorm mates included divers, ping pong players and weightlifters.
“It was a very controlled environment where you work, live and socialize with other athletes. The mental burnout had to be kept in check,” Liu says. “I would choose the same path if I had it to do over again. It was a great life experience.”
During her career, Liu was a Chinese national record holder in the 200-meter backstroke, two-time Chinese national champion, gold medalist at the FINA World Cup, silver medalist at the Asia Games and bronze medalist at the FINA World Championships.
Home visits with her family in Wenzhou were limited to 15 days per year and in her dorm, 60 athletes per floor shared one phone to call home. Her new family unit became her teammates.
As for being a gay athlete, Liu says that it was not discussed.
“Nobody talked about sexuality, but having no parental supervision allowed me to be free to do whatever I wanted,” says Liu. “It was a dorm after all.”
When she finished her swimming career with the national team, she was contacted by a sports reporter about colleges in the United States that were giving out full swimming scholarships. She was granted a green card for people with special abilities and began swimming for the University of Nevada, Reno in 1997.
Liu left collegiate swimming after two years and found a coaching position in the Bay Area. She returned to school at San Jose State University and earned a degree in Kinesiology and Biomechanics.
In 2010, a group of investors approached her to start a new swim school in the area. Liu agreed to the offer and negotiated to have a swim team added as well.
“All those years of swim training was a physical experience. What I learned at school was a scientific experience,” Liu says. “It gave me the ability to explain why, and to educate my swimmers with techniques and information that stays with them.”
Liu’s relationship with KR evolved to a point where it was time to come out to her parents who reside in both Vancouver and Wenzhou. The news didn’t go over well and there was no communication with them for more than two years.
Abi Liu and KR Liu were married on Aug. 8, 2015, in Maui and returned to the Bay Area for a celebration. One of Liu’s brothers attended the party and was surprised to see all the people there supporting the newlyweds. The news spread back to her family and her dad reached out and asked them to come to Vancouver.
In Chinese societies, there is a custom of handing out red envelopes on special occasions. The red color of the envelope symbolizes good luck and is a symbol to ward off evil spirits.
“I wasn’t sure what to expect when we were heading to Vancouver,” says Liu. “When we arrived, my parents came out and started hugging us. My Grandma handed us a red envelope.”
These days, the Liu family is happily reattached and communicate on a regular basis. Abi Liu’s coaching career has soared and she is a two-time Pacific Swimming coach of the year.
She is also serving as an ambassador for USA Swimming’s LGBT Cultural Inclusion Group. The outreach program has evolved into diversity camps and Liu recently coached at a camp in Colorado Springs.
“I am so fortunate that my parents came around and that I have a loving wife,” Liu says. “I feel so much lighter and open now. Everything has lifted and I am 100% myself. I want others like me to know that they are never alone.”