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'Being my authentic self saw a massive improvement in my swimming'

To mark Pride Month, former Great Britain and Jamaican swimmer Michael Gunning shares his experiences as a member of the LGBTQ+ community within aquatics.

International swimmer Michael Gunning has told us how his ‘swimming saw a massive improvement’ after he came out as gay.

Gunning, who swam at both the 2017 and 2019 World Aquatics Championships and just missed out on qualifying for Jamaica at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, said bringing out his true self helped him with his performance in the pool.

He said: “For a long time, I wasn’t really proud and present ​in sport.

“I really did suppress my sexuality and I felt ​as an athlete I had to fit into a specific mould and identity, and couldn’t be my true authentic self.

“But since coming out as gay and being open, I saw a massive improvement in my swimming and I think everyone deserves to be able to live their life as their true self and bring that true self to work.

“Because ultimately for me, swimming was a job ​for many years but when I was younger, I just loved ​the sport and loved going swimming.

“So I feel like for everyone to be able to love swimming and just be themselves and bring themselves to learn to swim, to be in a club, it’s really so rewarding when you come out the other side.

‘I want to change homophobic laws’

Gunning, who won a Pride Award at the 2019 Attitude Pride Awards believes Pride Month is all about celebrating your identity.

“I’m a ​Pride ​Ambassador for the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham and I think Pride Month for me is all about celebrating and embracing who you are.

“I think sometimes people see it as, ‘oh, you have to come out’ and people are almost rushing into coming out, but everyone’s on their own journey and I feel like this month just allows whatever diversity, whatever identity you see yourself ​as, and to celebrate that.”

The 28-year-old is a long time ambassador for the LGBTQ+ community and has represented Jamaica since 2016. He is working hard to help change the culture of countries around the globe, including Jamaica where certain same sex activity is illegal.

“I’m definitely going to continue my advocacy and ultimately try to change the laws. That is what I want to do.

“Countries still have homophobic laws, I want to try and change that and ​work with governments to make sure that we’re coming along as a society.

“But obviously I need to start on my doorstep with swimming and swimming communities in the UK to help make them ​become more inclusive ​for all.”

He also wanted to thank the great work that the Pride in Water campaign is doing to help members of the LGBTQ+ community across aquatics.

“Pride in Water is amazing.

“It’s a glimpse into the future of what it can be like.

“I feel for athletes in the UK ​who are struggling with their sexuality and luckily for swimmers they’ve got that safe space to go to for any information they may need.

“I’m really looking forward to seeing what it has in store because every sport should have a Pride network and I’m so glad that swimming has, and that the younger community has that representation now.”

Find someone to open up to

A number of people who come out struggle with their mental health and Gunning hopes that people being more open and talking more will help them feel more comfortable with themselves.

“Having those open conversations really help with mental health.

“I think lockdown and Covid taught us a lot, but it really taught us the importance of speaking out and talking to others and realising that many people are often feeling the same different thoughts and feelings.

“We can all help each other through and have unity with it all.”

After his experiences, Gunning encourages those struggling with their sexuality to find someone they can open up to about it.

“Speaking and just talking to that one person can help get rid of that burden and I think it’s the same for sexuality.

“Finding somebody who’s a friend and an ally that might not even be from the community but is just there to support you, or opening up to a parent or a teammate can make such a difference.

“If you don’t speak and you bottle it all up, that’s when you’re going to have bad thoughts in your head and you can really overthink it.

“So I really want to try and encourage the younger communities to be open with their teachers, their teammates and their family.

“Not everyone will be 100 per cent supportive, but I think if you’ve got someone that you can just open up to it takes off that pressure, it takes off that burden and you don’t feel as alone.”