The Bi Life's Michael Gunning on his swimming dreams, and being LGBT in sport
"That was my biggest worry, walking around poolside... would people judge me?" Michael Gunning talks about coming out, why he signed up for reality TV, and Rainbow Laces
Last Updated: 29/11/18 1:33pm
Michael Gunning is firmly back in the swim of things after a Spanish summer of love that he'll never forget.
After the disappointment of missing out on the Commonwealth Games, the Jamaica international swimmer agreed to try a completely different challenge - navigating the untested waters of reality TV. He can currently be seen on 'The Bi Life', filmed in Barcelona a few months back and showing on E! Hosted by the much-loved drag queen and Celebrity Big Brother winner Courtney Act, it's the UK's first dating show for people who are bisexual.
Speaking to Sky Sports in support of Stonewall's Rainbow Laces campaign, the 24-year-old is now fully readjusted to the routine of training as he turns his focus towards the World Aquatics Championships in Gwangju, Korea, next July.
He's totally at ease talking about his sexuality, but accepts that particular element of his confidence has only come to him recently.
"Within my sports environment, it was my biggest worry," he says. In all elite sports, including swimming, LGBT+ representation in general is still so limited, with openly gay and bi male athletes among the least visible. Now, with his Catalan adventures attracting thousands of TV viewers, Gunning is loving being out in life, and is shrugging off those past concerns.
I didn't even think of it as going on an LGBT show. I just saw it as going on a normal dating show, because we're getting to that stage now - and that's a good thing.
"I'd think that, walking around poolside, if I was known as bisexual... would people judge me? And would they think I wasn't as strong as everyone else, as manly?
"I do have a feminine side that likes to come out now and again. But when you embrace who you are, it shows in your performance too.
"Since I've been back in training, I've been swimming faster than ever because I'm happy. Before, maybe there was something missing."
Gunning's premium class is the 200m butterfly; he competed for Jamaica at the 2017 World Championships in Budapest, posting the fastest time of any Caribbean swimmer.
Born in Kent (his father, Shaun, moved to England at the age of five), he was a champion athlete at British Universities and College level and competed for Team GB before being offered the chance to swim for his dad's homeland. His younger brother Luke is also a rising star in the pool and representing Jamaica.
"Neither our mum nor dad were ever taught to swim," explains Michael. "But as soon as I was about four or five, they threw me into lessons - they wanted me to go on holiday and enjoy the water. I moved to a swimming club, and got my first taste of success when I was a 16-year-old junior, getting picked for Team GB.
"Everyone dreams of going to the Olympics, and that was the moment when I first thought I could actually do it."
After London 2012, Gunning began training with the elite aquatic group of fellow swimmers and also divers in Stratford. "We are a family that understands each other, because we've all been through the same experiences."
He is the same age as Tom Daley, but mentions the Olympic bronze medallist as being akin to a mentor. Daley famously came out in a video posted to YouTube in December 2013. "That was a turning point in my life, to help make me accept who I am.
"He told us before he did it - he was quite nervous about how people would take it, and how it would be perceived around the world. Lots of people say that you don't have to come out - and that would be my first advice to young people, to just explore your sexuality first like I've been doing, because there shouldn't really have to be a label on that.
"But to see how much positivity Tom gave people like me by doing that, and how much positivity he got himself, was really inspiring."
Back in the pool, Gunning was attracting attention through his improving performances. "I just missed out on the Rio Games, and Team Jamaica had been asking me for so long to represent them, so I decided to switch." But despite his encouraging performances at the Worlds in Hungary - "I wasn't expected to even qualify" - there was a setback when the Jamaica team for the Commonwealth Games at Gold Coast was announced at the start of this year.
"They had a certain amount of sports, and unfortunately for me they only selected one swimmer. All my friends in the sport here, like Adam Peaty, were so surprised. I got the times but I wasn't named. Mentally, it was very hard to get myself back up after that."
Since then, Gunning has been vocal about how there needs to be more representation in elite swimming for people like him. He knows all too well how damaging certain assumptions can be. "I used to come into school a little late in the mornings after training, and everyone used to say to me 'black people can't swim, there's no black people in Olympic swimming'.
"It's such a stereotype. They'd say to me, 'do something else'. I loved drama and theatre too and I always had to sacrifice those passions for training. But I wanted to prove them wrong, I wanted to be that person who could excel in swimming."
People's assumptions about sexuality also affected Gunning while he was growing up. "I was very good at suppressing my feelings. I never explored it until I was a bit older.
"I did get bullied quite badly, physically and verbally, so school was tough. I felt there wasn't really anyone I could turn to - I didn't know any gay, lesbian or bisexual people, and I didn't really have any role models to look up to back then really. I felt so alone.
"It's only recently that I've been able to own who I am, and I feel so much more relaxed and at ease. Also, since speaking up and being open, some of those bullies have messaged me to congratulate me on my career and swimming journey."
For someone so focused on both his sport and his study - Gunning has also recently achieved a first-class honours degree in Early Childhood Studies from the University of East London - his decision to go on 'The Bi Life' would have been seen as out of character by some of those who know him. He admits that an initial invitation from the show's producers was declined straight away. "But I was at a competition soon afterwards, and one of the younger boys came up to me and said 'I'm really struggling with my sexuality, and I don't really have anyone I can talk to. I can't speak to my family... do you have any advice?'
"Hearing that inspired me to go on the show and to be that representation, especially in the swimming world where there isn't really many LGBT role models that we can look up to in sport."
Was he surprised to be asked to be on 'The Bi Life'? "You can tell that I'm not the normal straight guy, so I wasn't really. Some people say, 'I can't believe you came out on TV, and spoke about your sexuality'. But for me, I didn't even think of it as going on an LGBT show. I just saw it as going on a normal dating show, because we're getting to that stage now. And that's a good thing."
Gunning's engaging personality, as seen on the show - at times a little green around the gills, but always genuine - has translated effectively from the small screen into social media, where his followers count is rapidly rising. As far as being an out man in competitive swimming is concerned, he feels it's less a case of daring to be different, more of being true to himself.
"Around big competitions, guys would all be slapping themselves, being macho - and then you'd see me, who has to keep smiling, to jump up and down, and be happy listening to my music.
"I always wave to the crowd when I walk out - that's just me, and that helps my performance. Before, maybe as a male swimmer you'd feel you had to slap yourself before a race, or look muscly and manly but I think we're getting to a stage now where that's changing."
He says that straight after the splash, he is in his zone. "As much as I'm smiling on the block, the minute I dive into that water, I'm another person and no one wants to be swimming next to that!"
Gunning is now based in Manchester, where his performance times in training are reflecting his recalibrated sense of purpose and determination. His priority now is ensuring he hits his peak in the green cap of Jamaica in Korea next summer and then again, he hopes, at Tokyo 2020.
However, the importance of being a role model clearly means a great deal to him as well. He recognises the challenge he faces to win hearts and minds in the Caribbean, where LGBT rights are thin, particularly in Jamaica.
What was the reaction from their governing body in swimming, when he told them about 'The Bi Life'? "There was really no response. But as long as I'm performing and getting the times that I need to achieve, I want it to be impossible for them to not take me on future teams.
"I know I'm inspiring a lot of people here in the UK. I'm getting a lot of people coming and talking to me about the show, and I'd love for that to filter through to the Caribbean countries too.
"I have some swim camps planned in Jamaica - the amount of people that can't even swim 25m of a pool is really shocking out there. Hopefully I can help make change on the LGBT side things of too."
'The Bi Life' is showing on E! (Sky channel 123) on Thursdays at 9pm.
Sky Sports is a member of TeamPride and supports Stonewall's Rainbow Laces campaign, which is currently receiving its annual activation across British sport until December 7.
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