Photo of Blake Skjellerup in Locker Room by Joni Anderson
For the last four years, Kiwi speed skater Blake Skjellerup has lived 7,000 miles from his family. Opting to train in Calgary, the openly gay Olympian has sacrificed countless hours and resources to prepare himself for this very moment: The Olympic qualifiers and, if all goes well, the Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
If he qualifies, he will be the first publicly out male athlete to ever compete in a Winter Olympics. Be hasn't gotten there yet, and he is currently at a competitive disadvantage: Skjellerup doesn't have the funds to bring his coach or physio therapist with him to the upcoming Olympic qualifying races. If he doesn't finish in the top 32 at the World Cups this autumn, he will not be at the Olympics in Sochi.
Now various LGBT organizations--including Out magazine and The Advocate--are backing a fundraising campaignto send Skjellerup the funds he needs to qualify for and compete in the Winter Olympics. You can contribute to that campaign for as little as $10 by clicking here.
As the Russian government cracks down on the LGBT community, the International Olympic Committee has affirmed their ban on any political speech or demonstrations by athletes during the Winter Games. While some hope athletes will don rainbow-colored gear and hoist rainbow flags at the opening ceremony, they will face disqualification if they do so.
None of that can stop Skjellerup. The greatest statement anyone in the LGBT community can make is to be out. No matter what kinds of demonstrations the IOC and Vladamir Putin forbid at these Winter Games, they cannot stop an out gay Olympian from competing, and they cannot stop the LGBT community from making him their ambassador at these Games.
We caught up with Skjellerup as he approaches the most important races of his career. He shared with us some insight into the sacrifices he's made to represent our community at the Winter Olympics, and the importance of this new fundraising campaign.
Cyd Zeigler: After years of hard work, you're now approaching crunch time. The World Cup starts in just a few weeks and the Olympics are around the corner. What's running through your head?
Blake Skjellerup: I am feeling very good at the moment. Training is going well and I am starting to see some results from all the hard work. I would say I am starting to get a little emotional, as this is it; the last four years have been a lot of things, and the fact I am finally at this point means it is all becoming a reality. I am proud I have managed to make it this far and overcome a lot of hurdles along the way.
What does your day-to-day routine look like now?
My day-to-day routine is long. I wake up at 6am and am out the door by 6:30am to catch the bus, then a train for my hourly commute from my cousin's house in the south of Calgary, to the Olympic Oval in the North. I usually arrive 30 minutes before my scheduled warm up time to get in a little extra work. After warm up its onto the ice at 9am until 10:45am. Post ice session I warm down until 11:30am, then its lunch time, which is probably my favorite part of the day! I am then back into warming up for my second session at 1:45pm, which is either back on the ice or in the weight room by 2:30pm. My day generally finishes up around 4:30pm. Depending on the intensity of activity on the day, I may do a cold recovery bath before getting back on the train, then bus for my commute home. I try to get to bed by 9:30 so I can have at least eight-and-a-half hours sleep.
A number of organizations have come together to launch a fundraising campaign to help you get some key resources. What are your thoughts on the outpouring of support you're seeing from these groups?
It is really great and overwhelming. I cannot achieve what I want to achieve alone, and the recent outpouring of support is just adding fuel to my fire! It is really encouraging to know people believe in me. Although I am an individual competing in an individual sport, I need a team behind me pushing me all the way, and without the support of these organizations and everyone else in the community, the journey would be a lot harder and a lonely one at that.
A couple items this campaign aims to fund are travel for your coach and physio therapist. How are your performances affected if you don't have access to your coach and physio therapist at the World Cups?
My performances will be affected hugely if I am unable to have a coach and physio therapist with me at my competitions. If I am there alone then I become all of those things myself, and my ability to focus solely on competing is hindered greatly. Athletes perform at their best when they can focus solely on the job at hand, which is competing.
Some people have a perception that Olympians are all these rich heroes sitting in posh homes. What's the financial reality of an Olympic speed skater like yourself?
Bankruptcy! And a heavy amount of credit card debt! The reality is that Olympians like myself pour our hearts and souls into our sports! We do it not for money, but for the love of our sport. The Olympic Games is the pinnacle of any athlete's career, and there are a lot of sacrifices that go into becoming an Olympian. Financial support has been my biggest struggle to date, and at times I have found myself in tears as I literally could not afford to eat. Sure the Olympic Games bring some attention your way, but for athletes like myself, the Olympics are not just every four years, they are every day!
If you make it to Sochi, chances are you'll be one of the very few out LGBT Olympians competing there. What does that mean to you?
The Olympic Games is what gave me hope at times in my life when I had none. The Olympic Games is what gave me the courage to accept myself, and be my true self. The fact that I will be one of the only openly gay athletes in Sochi says to me that their is still prejudice in sport, and that something as powerful as the Olympic Games has a responsibility to educate and highlight diversity in order to fulfill the values upon which they were modernly founded.
When I was 19 years old I would sit in my room and cry. I was crying because I knew I was gay, but for some reason I thought I could not be gay and be an Olympian. Yet at the same time, the thought of becoming an Olympian and representing my country is what kept me going, what gave me hope, and what in turn has lead me to where I am today.
You can contribute to the fundraising campaign to send Blake Skjellerup to the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, by clicking here.
WATCH the video (and listen to Blake's sexy accent) below: