An Olympic luger, John Fennell, celebrated his nineteenth birthday by publicly coming out as gay.
Fennell, who is currently a business student at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada, told the Calgary Herald that staying in the closet is more than just painful: “It’s suffocating.”
He explained, “You have to play this game of, ‘Who knows?’ You can’t let off any vibes or secrets. You have to act super macho. You have to be hyper aware of your mannerisms and to not let off any vibes that could get detected. It’s very exhausting.
“It’s an all-consuming paranoia of who could find out through what means.”
Though Fennell had wanted to come out for a while in the period leading up to the Sochi Olympics, he hesitated because he didn’t know of any male Canadian Olympians who were openly gay. “I was a little distraught over the lack of leadership going into Sochi,” he said, referring to how he would be participating in the competition of his life in a country where even mentioning that homosexuality exists can mean jail time. “There were a few out girls, but to my knowledge there weren’t any out guys.”
Finally, though, he decided that if there were no examples for him to follow, he would become the example he had wanted, in the hope of inspiring others to come out as well.
“I’m an athlete. Realistically, I put on a spandex suit and slide down a mountain,” he said. “I’m no message board for political movements. But we need to have leaders in our sport community. If it takes a 19-year-old to step up…I’m more than willing to use my voice or the platform that I’ve been given to give a figurehead to gay youth in sport.”
The elder statesman of the Canadian luge team, Sam Edney, was one of the first people he came out to. Edney told the Herald, “I have the utmost respect for him. You could tell this was something that was taking away from who he is in the sport. I can tell you if I had something like that on my mind all the time, I wouldn’t be ready to give the 110 per cent that’s needed to be the best in the world.”
Like many, Fennell says that he was afraid of how his friends, family, and teammates would react, but now feels that coming out was the best decision he could have made for himself.
He asked, “You know that feeling when you’re falling asleep and you have that feeling that you’re falling, and you hit the ground, and you’re suddenly awake? Well, that’s what it was like for me. I was totally, fully conscious all at once. A whole new aspect of myself opened up.”