After joining the British Elite Athletes Association as Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Ambassador, former swimmer Michael Gunning said he is excited to be the role model he never had while growing up.
Michael, 28, represented both Team GB and Jamaica and competed at two World Aquatics Championships, but says that in his early sporting years he had few athletes to look up to.
The recipient of a 2019 Pride Award, Michael came out as gay in 2018, and is also of mixed heritage. He told the BEAA how his background almost held him back in sport:
“I had many years where I questioned if I’ve been good enough and whether I can succeed and whether I should even be in the sport I’m doing,” he said.
“It was stereotypes. Society wore me down to believe that maybe I wasn’t in the sport I would necessarily succeed at. I was always told when I was younger that I’d never qualify to represent my country, never be successful, and why don’t I do a sport I’d be good at. Those doubts creep in.
“It wasn’t until I qualified for my first team and made the cut and [secured] those times that I started to have the confidence. Ultimately I want to throw stereotypes out of the water, smash them out of it completely, but also make sure no younger me or person currently on the team has any doubt in their minds.
“We’re all super talented. Strip back those stereotypes of what society thinks you should be and be yourself: do sport as your authentic self.
“When I was younger there wasn’t necessarily the role models in swimming, in the sport, that I saw and could look up to and just have that representation. With this role I’m excited to share those experiences.
“To have representation, to look at somebody and see amazing sportsmen and women talking about their sport, handing down their knowledge, would have meant so much to me [growing up]. It’s something I didn’t really have. I’m excited to step into that role and be that for someone else.”
Michael becomes a BEAA Ambassador alongside wheelchair basketball player Robyn Love, who joins as LGBTQ+ Ambassador.
He is best known for participating in the 200m butterfly, and has worked extensively to raise awareness of racial and sexual diversity within sport and beyond, recently being nominated for both British LGBTQ+ Sports Personality of the Year and the Rainbow Honours Award for Celebrity LGBTQI Champion of the Year.
When he retired at 28, Michael made clear his commitment to campaigning and working to improve sporting equality. Less than a year after hanging up his goggles, he’s certainly stuck by that pledge. Here, he reveals what motivates him to remain in the spotlight.
“The things I’ve learned along my swimming journey and athlete career, I’m so excited to give back and hopefully make a big impact in this role.
“I think we’ve really come such a long way. But as well we have a long way to go; I’m excited to see where we can take this role. It’s nice to look back and see how far we’ve come, but we’ve got the opportunity to shape and put our touch on it and make a ripple effect. For me, it’s more than just a role and label, it’s the people we can impact every day, which is vital.
“I was so worried about life after retiring, but I know one thing for sure: I definitely still want to stay involved with sport. With this role I get to do that, I get to engage with athletes and get to still very much be part of people’s journey.
“My biggest piece of advice is to enjoy the journey. All the medals I’ve won, I think back to the journey I’ve been on and the experiences I’ve had and the fact I can be part of athletes’ journeys is pushing me forward.”
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