Olympic hopeful Michael Gunning turned racial prejudice and homophobia into motivators for his swimming career, he details in a new interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
While he was growing up in the U.K., the gay Jamaican-born athlete was told by schoolmates that “Black people don’t swim.” But he didn’t let the bullies win. Instead, he just swam faster.
“For me, it was just a motivation to prove them wrong and get selected for Team [Great Britain] and be away for weeks from school and then come back and show them my medals,” he told Reuters.
He was dealing with other issues as well. As a youth he felt “very different ... and I suppose that was my sexuality mixed in,” Gunning said. He wasn’t ready to come out even to himself, but “because I wasn’t ready to address my inner feelings, I put all of that effort into swimming and had a good junior career.”
Gunning, now 26, won his first British national title when he was 13, for the 200-meter butterfly. The swimmer, who moved to the U.K. at age 5, has competed both for that country and for Jamaica. He holds citizenship for both and has three Jamaican records.
After being present at the Manchester Arena in England when it was bombed during an Ariana Grande concert in 2017, with 23 people killed, he decided to swim for Jamaica. “It really put life into perspective, and that was the year that I decided to swim for Jamaica to inspire more people and to share my story,” he said.
Part of that story for Gunning, who appeared on the reality show The Bi Life, involves being an out gay man in a country where homophobia is widespread. He hopes he can make a difference.
“The world is turning slowly, and I think it is changing, and I’m sure in time, Jamaica will accept LGBT people and legislation will change, but it’s a slow process and I think the more role models we have, the better,” he told Reuters.
He was planning to represent Jamaica in this summer’s Olympics, but the games have been postponed until next year due to the global pandemic. He hasn’t let up on training, though, and is looking ahead to competing in Tokyo in 2021.
“We’ve worked so hard for it for so long, and yes, we’ve had a little dip in the road, and it’s been pushed back a year, but I’m so excited,” he said.