By Annie Hollenbeck
Originally published on Advocate.com May 29 2014 6:18 PM ET
Canadian Olympic luger John Fennell gave himself a priceless 19th birthday present: The high school valedictorian and business student at the University of Calgary came out publicly as gay this week.
One of an increasing number of athletes are stepping out of the closet, Fennell recognizes the pain and suffering caused by not being out.
“It’s suffocating,” Fennell told the Calgary Herald. “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.”
Going into the Sochi Olympics earlier this year, Fennell reflected on how his desire to come out was thwarted by a lack of leadership, considering he had not known any male Canadian Olympians who were out. Despite his youth, though, Fennell took it upon himself to be open, in the hopes that other closeted athletes would follow suit.
“I’m an athlete,” he said. “Realistically, I put on a spandex suit and slide down a mountain. 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 and to that, 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.”
It’s a mantra that has been uttered before, but Fennell says life out of the closet equals freedom. He called it “liberating.”
Fennell joins Jason Collins, Michael Sam, and countless other men and women who have broken down the closet door in their respective sports and organizations. While he does admit he previously feared the reaction of his family, friends, and coworkers, and particularly what could happen to an out gay man in notoriously homophobic Russia, he said he knows that competing without the fear of facing speculation or being outed can only improve his athletic career.
Reflecting on the irony of staying in the closet as an athlete who competes by sliding down an icy track at almost 90 miles an hour, he added, “I thought to myself, How the hell am I brave enough to go down this hill if I can’t be brave enough to be who I am?”