By: Michael Gunning, Professional swimmer and Athlete Ally Pro Ambassador; Originally posted on Michael’s blog
Over the past few weeks, I’ve witnessed the world come together in solidarity to challenge racism, inequality and injustice.
As a Black male, my mind has been whirling over the many powerful issues brought to light and social media hasn’t been the nicest place to be; Anyone that knows me will know that I’m a sensitive, passionate and emotional guy, but I’ve found many videos/content extremely difficult to watch, and I know the burning image of George Floyd’s death will stay in all our minds forever.
I must admit, I couldn’t bring myself to watch the full video of George Floyd, but it exposed another moment in Black history where the world challenges and questions racism in our everyday lives. No matter the colour of your skin, the race you were born or your sexuality… we must all strive to live in this world as ONE with our hearts beating together. The day George Floyd was murdered made us all realise that as a society, we’re not yet all one, and for certain individuals, organisations and groups, not all of us are treated equally.
Across many media articles about me throughout the years, I’ve often been described as the ‘Black gay athlete’ and I often wonder whether I’ll always be referred to as that label, or if people will ever see me as the hardworking Jamaican athlete, who is a lovable, caring, and funny guy that represents his country at the highest level. I don’t want any label to define me.
I’m not going to lie, I know I’ve been extremely privileged over my lifetime: I have duel British/Jamaican citizenship and I’ve represented both Team GB and Team Jamaica through the World Class Pathway in International Swimming. I’ve experienced bullying, stereotyping, and mistreatment, but overall, I’ve been incredibly lucky that all these experiences have also been accompanied by love, support, and praise. I’ve seen so many stories online of black tragedy, and I know of some heart-breaking stories from my friends, family, and loved ones, but I think it’s important to share my story to give people a beacon of hope. My story has had its ups and downs, but despite overcoming many challenges along the way, it really has been great! I wanted to write this blog to continue to live my life long dream of inspiring people around the world – whether it’s one person or one hundred – to achieve wonderful things and have the self-confidence to believe that anything is possible. As a British born athlete, I’ve had the privilege to represent a predominately white country and a predominately black country, and everyone’s story is different; I’d like you to take a look inside mine…
This year I was in touching distance of making my Olympic Dream come true! When I was at secondary school, I used to train every night and three early morning sessions a week and I always had my classmates asking lots of questions as to why I swam before school in the mornings.
“Don’t Black people run?”
“Why don’t you do athletics? You’ll be good at that!”
“Black people can’t swim”
At that young age, all I knew was I LOVED swimming and I knew I was good at it… I loved doing things people didn’t think were possible, so I kept going and was willing to do things many others wouldn’t in the pool.
When I was 15, I qualified for my very first international team for Team GB and I remember how excited I was when I received bundles of GB kit, and had to sign hundreds of documents and when it was time to depart for the trip, I was so nervous to leave my family for the very first time. The competitions and training camps were priceless and it was everything I had worked hard towards and more. I truly loved every second. We went to Rome, France, Croatia, you name it! Back at home, everyone always had an opinion about my swimming career, whether it was “you need to focus on your studies more” or “you’ll never make it to the Olympics”, but the following years I made another and another team, and one highlight was when I sat my GCSE Exams in France on a training camp with the rest of Team GB, as I then knew that I was special, as 99.8% of my school never got to experience anything I had.
Throughout my British swimming career, and every time I put on my ‘GBR’ kit, it never crossed my mind that I was the only Black swimmer. I never once noticed how much of a minority I was. In my eyes, I always saw it as a good thing because I was breaking barriers and becoming a role model for many to look up to.
I NEVER felt I was ever looked down upon. I NEVER felt I treated differently. I was certainly NEVER made to feel my life didn’t matter. I was lucky.
Over the years, I always had one burden that I was scared of facing, and that was my sexuality. I didn’t want people to see me differently, I didn’t want people to see me as weak. I wanted to carry on inspiring everyone in what they do and get rid of all stereotypes in the process, but I was so scared that people wouldn’t look up to me anymore.
It was a tough decision to represent Jamaica when I did, because I was entering the unknown territory of how my sexuality would be interpreted; after all, I was, and still am, the very first openly LGBT athlete representing Team Jamaica and I really was petrified of the repercussions. It was an incredibly proud moment when I put on the Team Jamaica kit for the very first time too and I felt extremely lucky to have had the privilege of competing for two nations both close to my heart. After staying in an athlete’s village with the team, I soon learnt the strong stereotype of swimming in the Caribbean in addition to how heavily respected other sports like athletics were, and how quickly I was stereotyped when I wore the Jamaican kit; it was clear that the stereotype across the world was that Black people don’t swim. At first, I often just agreed with other fans/nations when they asked if I was a runner, and posed for a photo with fellow athletes, but I’m so proud to represent swimming on the international level as AQUATICS is a sport for anyone, and I will continue to correct anyone that stereotypes me!
As a successful International Swimmer, I want to carry on inspiring people all around the world and break this mould of Black stereotypes, and I truly feel like every day I am taking a step closer to achieving that dream. I’ve been thinking endlessly over the past few days about what I can do to help and show support for the Black Lives Matter Movement, but even I admit that I must educate myself more on Black history and how we can move forward together.
When I think of my journey as an athlete, I’ve come such a long way but my journey is far from over… I hope to still qualify for the Olympics next year and achieve my lifelong dream, and over the next year I will continue to inspire and educate people on both sexuality and Black lives in whatever way I can.
All Black Lives Matter.
All Black LGBTQ+ Lives Matter.
Equality is real.
We must never stop fighting for what we believe in.
Spread the love always – Michael xx
Follow Michael on Instagram here.