Calgary Olympian finds three words liberating: ‘I am gay’
On his 18th birthday, John Fennell decided to document every great thing that happened in his first official year of adulthood.
Some 364 days later, the laundry list — dubbed my 18-year-old high — features everything from serving as high school valedictorian, to studying business at the University of Calgary, to moving out of his mom’s house, to representing Canada in luge at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
And so with the hours ticking down to his 19th birthday, Fennell hopes to add one more item to a year to remember.
John Fennell wants the world to know he is gay.
No more secrets. No more changing pronouns in conversations about personal relationships. No more fretting over perceived cracks in the story.
“It’s suffocating,” Fennell says of life inside the proverbial closet, even in the year 2014. “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.”
So Fennell is going public in hopes of stepping out of the shadows and serving as a role model for those still suffering in silence.
A paradigm shift is well underway when it comes to gay athletes feeling safe enough to come out. This winter, NBA player Jason Collins became the first publicly gay athlete to play in any of the four major North American pro sports leagues. Earlier this month, the St. Louis Rams selected Michael Sam, an openly gay football player from the University of Missouri, in the seventh round of the NFL Draft.
Still, in his first taste of the Olympics, Fennell felt isolated and alone. Sure, Calgary-based speedskater Anastasia Bucsis made headlines last summer by going public with her sexuality, but no Canadian male athlete did the same.
“I was a little distraught over the lack of leadership going into Sochi,” he says of competing in country with laws forbidding “propaganda” of homosexuality to minors. “There were a few out girls, but to my knowledge there weren’t any out guys, and I know they’re there.
“I’m an athlete. 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.”
The son of former Canadian Football League superstar David Fennell and the younger brother of Michigan State nose tackle David Fennell Jr., John Fennell played football, soccer and basketball before settling on the Olympic discipline of luge.
In his mind, Fennell found it more comforting to hurl himself down an icy track at 140 km/hr than to face the fear of being found out in a team locker-room.
“It’s something I was aware of, but something I didn’t act upon for a long time,” he says of his sexual orientation. “It was something I tried to hide. I dated girls in high school. Being in an athletic culture, there’s a certain amount of bravado you have to uphold, so it’s something I really suppressed about myself.”
In the lead-up to the Sochi Olympics — with gay and lesbian athletes fearing harassment or, even worse, arrest — the pressure became too much. Desperate for help, Fennell reached out to the openly-gay Mark Tewksbury. Some 10 months before winning gold in the 100-metre backstroke at the 1992 Sumer Olympics, Tewksbury confided in synchronized swimming coach Debbie Muir. Without that conversation, Tewksbury doubts he would have won.
“When John came to see me at my apartment in Calgary and we sat down, it was like such a déjà vu, but I was Debbie, and John was me,” Tewksbury says. “Even to the point he said, ‘I think you know why I’m here.’ I said exactly the same thing to Debbie. I was like, ‘I think you know what I need to tell you.’ And she said, ‘yeah, I think I do, but I need to hear it from you.’
“And it was exactly the same with John. I said, ‘I think I need to hear it from you.’ Then he said the words which are so awkward to say the first few times, ‘I am gay.’ ”
Telling Tewksbury was one thing. Telling his family, friends, and teammates was quite another. But at an Olympic training stop in bitterly cold Latvia, the strapping 6-foot-4, 205-pounder experienced what he calls an epiphany on a clear day at the top of the icy track.
He could no longer live a life shrouded in secret.
“I had been training like crap all week — hitting, crashing and flipping,” he says. “I was sitting in the start handles and I had almost this suffocating moment. I started hyperventilating, and I couldn’t breathe.
“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?’ ”
He mustered the courage to come out a month later in the country he feared most.
“The thing that scared me the most is our Canadian Olympic Committee debriefing that said any information in Russia is subject to being seen by the government,” he says. “So I didn’t travel with my phone or my computer when we went there, which was a testament to how nervous I was going in.
“I was a basket case going to Russia.”
A basket case going to Russia. A new man leaving Russia. Dispatched to Sochi for with an eye to develop for future Olympics, Fennell placed 27th in men’s luge. Nothing spectacular, but nothing to be ashamed of.
During the Games, Fennell set out to knock down the imaginary wall that separated him from the rest on world. He leaned on Bucsis. He turned to members of the COC mission staff for support.
He mustered up the courage to tell Sam Edney, the elder statesman of the Canadian luge team.
“I have the utmost respect for him,” Edney says. “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.”
A three-time Olympian, Edney figures Fennell has tools to one day become the best in the world.
“He’s an amazingly gifted athlete,” Edney says. “If you’re talking purely about the sport of luge, he’s the picture perfect luge athlete. He’s tall and lean. He has long arms for leverage at the start. He’s got incredible power and strength, and at the same time for an 18-year-old kid, he’s extremely mature.”
Upon returning home to Calgary, Fennell broke the news to his mom. He told his dad and brother on a football trip in the United States. He travelled to universities all over Western Canada to break the news to his friends.
Freedom, at last.
“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?” Fennell asks. “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 and it’s very liberating.”
And so with the hours counting down to his 19th birthday, Fennell puts pen to paper to document one last great thing to happen as an 18 year old.
“John’s one of the first who is actively competing on the male side who is saying, ‘hey, I’m gay,’ ” Tewksbury says. “I thought this would happen a couple years after I came out in 1998, and it actually took more like 16 years.
“People are people. I think John’s team really cares about him, and they really like him. And it doesn’t matter who he loves or what he does outside the playing field.
“I think more people need to understand if you can overcome the fear of what might happen and actually go for it, sometimes the outcome is really surprising.”
Vicki Hall, Calgary Herald 05.28.2014