Tanner Wilfong has made waves on the swimming and diving team, even representing Team USA in Malaysia in 2014 – but his interests extend far beyond the pool. The Pennsylvania-born senior has a passion for the auto industry and a dream of becoming a DJ, and he was also UM’s first openly gay athlete. With a back injury putting his athletic career on hold, Wilfong is looking forward to the next stage in his life, whatever that may bring.
The Miami Hurricane: How did you first become interested in swimming and diving?
Wilfong: I started swimming when I was four years old on a team in North Carolina, and by the time I was 14, I had enough of swimming. I had more of an energetic, acrobatic background. Not with skills or anything, but just the way I was as a person. So I tried diving for the first time when I was about 14, maybe 15, and ever since then I got stuck in it, I mean, I just loved it.
TMH: What is the most challenging part about being a student-athlete?
W: I think the most challenging part is when it comes to actually doing school and being accepted by teachers and by groups, because they have to understand that you’re required to miss these days. You’re on a scholarship because you’re here representing the university, and you don’t have a choice whether you miss. … Most of them were accepting, but it’s hard because when people aren’t at that demanding of a level of anything and requirements are in place, it’s hard to understand where other people come from.
TMH: What is the most rewarding part?
W: Being able to wear the U. I mean, Miami diving is a ridiculous program historically. … Our coach has had, what, 10 Olympians? You name it, it’s happened, and being a part of that is like writing your name in stone. You move on and it’s something that people in this sport, especially in diving at Miami, are really proud of. That’s just the most rewarding part is representing our school and representing Randy, our coach.
TMH: How do you balance coursework and athletics?
W: Balancing coursework is actually easier for me with a sport. I have ADHD, but to me, it’s like I’m a very all over the place person, and without a regimen and schedule, I really struggle with getting what I need to get done. Like, this past two weeks I haven’t been diving – well, three now – and I’ve kind of been all over the place. I’ll kind of procrastinate a lot more than I need to. But being an athlete is way easier, I think, for my personality type and for the way I am, because it just requires me to get what I need to get done on time.
TMH: What was it like to represent team USA?
W: [It] was the most humbling, honorable experience that I’ll ever have in my life. Coming in, I wasn’t the best diver here, and I really had to work for the scholarship I was on and the things I was given and never thought – I don’t think my coaches really thought either – that I was ever going to be on a national team. … I’m not trying to brag, but I don’t know a single person that’s come in with my ability and then gotten there – and if it has, it’s probably happened here. And you know, getting there and coming back with a bronze medal, I mean, that’s just another thing … you get over there and you’re just expecting to have fun, you don’t have any pressure because you’ve never been to this level of meet before, and all of the sudden you get a medal and you’re just speechless, that’s all I can say.
TMH: What has been your greatest achievement?
W: I think my greatest achievement has been making that national team. … I owe it all to Randy and Dario. It’s so hard to even talk about, it’s very emotional. They’re two phenomenal human beings, and Randy has become my father. I mean, I will talk to him once a week for the rest of my life, and that’s how most of his athletes are. There’s no comparison to how he is, the things we do together, the family-like aspect of the team, the bonds we all have, I’ve just never felt so comfortable around a human being in my life, besides my parents, than Randy and Dario. So to me, actually my best achievement is gaining those people in my life.
TMH: The Roanoke Times’s profile of you notes that you were “the school’s first active openly gay athlete.” What does that mean to you?
W: For me, I want to show people that are maybe scared to come out or be themselves that you don’t have to be a certain person to be gay. … You don’t realize how much of a burden that is on you every day, when you’re waking up and you’re thinking to yourself, “Oh, I don’t want to be gay,” or this or that, and then finally being able to open up about that. And telling my coaches was actually really easy. … They were like, “This is awesome,” and from that moment on, everything changed. And I owe it to Randy to me coming out, I mean, he was so open and welcoming to it. He’s a fisherman, he’s very in his own ways, and it’s hard to describe, but to me it was like the ultimate person to be able to talk to about it. And my team, too. My team was so accepting, and the girls on the team loved it, the guys were all about it, they were just like, “Dude, that’s awesome.” So I really owe it to this team and the school and the area and my coaches for that.
TMH: What are your athletic goals?
W: My athletic goals kind of got held at a point this spring because of my back. I was supposed to go to Olympic trials and I had to scratch that because of my back and I deferred my scholarship, so I’m kind of un-open about what I’m doing next year. … I would love to come back, I feel like I have a lot left … my degree is computer information systems in the business school, so I feel like I have a lot of opportunity to do some satellite work while I’m training. So if I get healthy, I would love to look at my options. Maybe come back down here, maybe go train somewhere else.
TMH: What are your goals regarding your career and life in general?
W: I really am a musician. It’s kind of surprising, not to the people that know me, but to everyone else. … But actually, I got into electronic music when I came down here. … I think my goals are really to become a producer more and produce more music, and maybe ultimately become a DJ, but I don’t have my plans set on being a DJ, because I personally don’t believe that people plan on being famous or plan on being big-time musicians, you know? That’s kind of something that happens while you’re busy making other plans in your life.