It’s easy to feel helpless. Useless. Sunk.
I have learned the hard way you can’t ignore change and disruptions. The only way to get through is to embrace them and find a way forward. Easier said than done sometimes, I know. But after one woman created the environment for me to overcome enormous odds to succeed, I have made sure to spend my life paying it forward.
For some context, I used to swim the 100 m backstroke, the only swimming event which starts in the water. It was always assumed that once you started (and pushed off the wall), that you would come up and start swimming, but it wasn’t written specifically in the rule book that the swimmer actually had to come to the surface.
An American who had studied marine biology learned that doing the dolphin kick underwater is faster than swimming on the surface and exploited the loophole in the rule book. He started to do the dolphin kick 95 of the 100 meters underwater, only emerging to do a turn. The rest of the world soon followed and my event soon became the 100-meter underwater dolphin kick.
This disruption came right at the peak of my career, in the year leading up to my 1st Olympics in 1988. I was ranked 2nd in the world.
I had a very old school coach named Derek Snelling. He had been a Drill Sargeant in the British Navy and didn’t want to adapt to any of this. On top of it, I was a terrible technical swimmer, so we chose to just ignore this advancement. We kept doing what we always did.
And we paid the price. I went to the Olympics and came 5th. Only three swimmers in the race swam the race, the other five underwater kicked. The day after the Olympics, the swimming federation plugged the loophole and introduced a rule where you had to surface at 15 meters off the start and the turn. But it was too little, too late.
Fast forward three years to the year before the Olympics in Barcelona. I still ignored this underwater dolphin kick but worked my way back to being ranked 2nd in the world. At the world championships in Perth, Australia, I won a silver medal and placed 6/100ths behind the World Record holder, Jeff Rouse—less than a fingernail behind. I was once again a medal favourite.
And then, bam! With 11 months to go until the Barcelona Olympics, my main rival, Rouse, drops 1.2 seconds and smashes the world record. Dream gone. I had a total déjà vu.
I went to a wedding and there I ran into Debbie Muir, the world’s greatest synchronized swimming coach of that era. Debbie had retired from coaching the national synchronized swimming team but one of her swimmers was marrying a volleyball player. She asked me how I was doing. It was the question that would change the rest of my life.
Instead of giving her a pat answer, “Oh, I’m fine,” I was so completely tormented and frustrated that I unleashed on her. I told her about Jeff and how suddenly my dream was shattered. Eventually she said, “Hey, we’re at a wedding, but let’s get together for lunch next week to talk about what we can do.”
That was the most amazing lunch. We talked and talked and talked. I had ignored the underwater technical aspect of my race for so long. With Debbie’s questions I realized that I had been ignoring 30% of my race. By the end of lunch, she had agreed to come out of retirement to coach me.
It was amazing because I had spent my life in a sport that was male dominated. Led with a “control and command” style. Do what you were told. Follow instruction. Don’t challenge.
And now I was working with Debbie. We were connecting and collaborating, discussing ideas, sharing experiences, coming up with best solutions. It was amazing to have this training environment. She created a place where I felt safe to express myself, try new things, fail in order to move forward.
And as we kept working together, I knew that I had this huge secret that I had been carrying around my entire life. Hard to imagine in 2019, but in the 1990’s there was a still an enormous social stigma attached to being gay. No one ever spoke of it except in the most negative ways. But how could I tap into my absolute best if I had this tape in my head fighting against myself?
I knew I had to share my secret with Debbie. I knew I could be open and trust her. We had become friends. In fact, it would have been weird not to share it with her given how close we were.
So one day, about four months before the Olympics, we went to one of my favourite restaurants in Calgary. “I have something to tell you,” I said. “I think I know,” she replied. “Then you tell me.” “No, I need to hear it from you.” It was the first time I had ever said this out loud to a coach: “I’m gay.” The words felt like they floated through the air: I’m gay…gay…gay…. gay…. She teared up and said, “You have my support 100%.”
This issue of being gay had always been a liability for me, especially in the world of sport. With Debbie, in an environment that was open and enabled me to talk, it became a strength. I could stop fighting myself, hating myself. I was gay and I was okay. Actually—I was great. So much so that right in the most important moment at the Olympics, being gay became my super power.
In swimming you spend the last 30 minutes with the seven other finalists in your event in a Ready-Room. It is a super intense experience. But there was a moment during that time that I realized—all eight of us wanted to win this race. We have all put in 10,000+ hours. What makes me different? I am the GAY one. If they only knew… how strong I am… I felt my blood pulse—had to calm down.
I went out there and dropped 1.2 seconds. I out-touched Jeff Rouse by 6 one-hundredths of a second to win Canada’s first gold medal at the Barcelona Olympics.
My greatest legacy from those games isn’t the gold medal but the relationship I have with Debbie. I will never forget how one person had the power to turn my life around. I have made it my purpose to pay that forward.
20 years ago, when I came out publicly, I predicted it would take another five years for a breakthrough to happen in sport and there would be no longer be an issue about being gay in sport.
I’m not proud that 16 years later, I was still the go-to guy for all issues LGBTQ+ and sport. I’m not proud that we have the Olympics in places like Russia that specifically target our LGBTQ+ community.
The lead up to Sochi was hard. It was brutal to see my community targeted, persecuted and imprisoned. It was easy to feel useless. But at least I found a way to do my little part.
A young 17-year old luge athlete and Team Canada member told his sport psychologist he was gay, and he was terrified of going to Sochi for the Olympics. They reached out to me to see if I would talk to him.
I invited the athlete to meet me at my apartment for privacy. In came John Fennell. Very tall. Thin. Big hair. And so incredibly nervous. Like terrified. He couldn’t sit still. He was biting his nails like crazy. I could just see this was a shell of a guy.
It was the strangest moment. He said to me, “I have to tell you something.”
And then I said, “I think I know what it is but I need to hear you say it.” And It was déjà vu. I had become Debbie!
He said it so quietly. “I am gay.” I said, “Okay. How is that for you?” And it started a great conversation that led to me being able to do something.
We needed to put a safety net in place for John over in Sochi. I knew LGBTQ+ members of the mission team that weren’t necessarily out, but they were out to me and could provide that pink network if needed. And sadly, John had to pull that trigger; he felt under threat there and needed the support. At least it was there for him.
Sometimes when I look at the state of the world, especially from an LGBTQ+ lens, I can feel very overwhelmed and depressed. I know people on the ground in places like Burundi who are in danger every day, doing what they do. It could be easy to feel helpless, useless.
But through my experience with John I realized: just commit to doing your own little part.
Because history moves forward incrementally. It would have been impossible, even 20 years ago, to imagine the world as we know it today. Yet here we are.
Baby steps. As long as we’re moving it forward we remain unsinkable.