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Mental Health Awareness Week: Michael Gunning and Harry Needs on how 'strength of friendship' is supporting swimmer's Olympics quest

One's an athlete training hard to reach Tokyo 2020, the other is his best friend and housemate who was once an international swimmer himself; they talk to Sky Sports about the effects of lockdowns and COVID-19 on their mental health, being LGBT+ in sport, and breaking down male stereotypes

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - MARCH 13: Michael Gunning of Jamaica competes in the Men's 200m Butterfly heats on day two of the British Swimming Invitation Meet at the Manchester Aquatics Centre on March 13, 2021 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
Image: Michael Gunning is bidding to represent Jamaica at Tokyo 2020 in what would be his first Olympic Games

With just 70 days to go before the scheduled start of the Tokyo Olympics, athletes around the world are thinking about the final stages of their Games preparations.

However, the ongoing lack of clarity over competing in Japan - where coronavirus cases are again rising - continues to play on their minds, while an online petition to cancel Tokyo 2020 altogether is also gathering momentum within the country.

Swimmer Michael Gunning is hoping to represent Jamaica in what would be his first Olympics. Born and based in Britain, the question marks surrounding the Games grow ever more disconcerting.

"It's the uncertainty," he tells Sky Sports. "No two days have been the same for me - one day I've been happy and really motivated, other days I've been low and really struggling.

"One of the things that has got me through is talking to other athletes, knowing that we're all in the same storm but in different boats."

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - MARCH 13: Michael Gunning of Jamaica competes in the Men's 200m Butterfly heats on day two of the British Swimming Invitation Meet at the Manchester Aquatics Centre on March 13, 2021 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
Image: Gunning's favoured event is the 200m butterfly for which he holds the national record

The tempestuous ups and downs of the pandemic are still testing us all and in Mental Health Awareness Week, people from across sport and society have been speaking out about the pressures they face.

Elite athletes like Gunning are having to work hard just to maintain focus - he describes it as "controlling the controllable". In pursuit of selection in his favoured event of 200m butterfly, for which he holds the national record, the 27-year-old will head to a meet in Glasgow early next month and then hopes to race in Rome later in June.

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Helping to keep him focused is his best friend and housemate Harry Needs. A former competitive swimmer himself who represented Great Britain at international level, Needs stepped away from the sport after the disappointment of missing out on London 2012.

Now working as a personal trainer and graphic designer, he's an essential sounding board and moral support for Gunning. Together, they have navigated the choppy waters thrown at them by COVID-19.

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Gunning opens up about how lockdown impacted his training and mental health, with best friend and former GB swimmer Harry Needs on hand to help provide a routine

For a long time, Gunning couldn't even get in a leisure centre due to lockdown restrictions and had to train in a pop-up pool in the back garden of the home near Stockport where he lives with Needs. He feels fortunate to now be firmly back on track with his build-up to Tokyo and says the value of stable friendship in turbulent times should not be underestimated.

"I'm very lucky that I live with my best friend - not many people get to say that!" says Gunning.

"With Harry, I've been coming home and just venting how I feel. It really does help to share that with someone."

Record breakers after tragedy and trauma

Having both come through the British swimming programme - Gunning switched to represent Jamaica in 2016 - they have always been on the same wavelength when it comes to sport, but their bond has been strengthened by a series of challenges they have helped each other overcome. They are keen to communicate a message of brotherhood as this awareness week about mental wellbeing draws to a close.

"Maybe that's why we're connected so well as best friends - we're just passionate about wanting to help others on this," says Needs.

"We share a lot through our own social platforms, in the hope that we can inspire people and help them find their happiness. Life is so short - one of our closest friends is terminally ill at the moment and that's something that's again changing perspective for us.

"We want to advocate for things that are important to us and encourage everyone to be allies in different ways."

Michael Gunning, Harry Needs
Image: Gunning and Needs became firm friends through swimming and as housemates, they have supported one another during a tough 15 months

Needs is particularly well placed to discuss men's mental health in a constructive, thoughtful way. In the last few years, he has had to spend considerable time taking stock of his own wellbeing. He was previously in a long-term relationship with the two-time Olympic gold medallist Becky Adlington - a year after getting married, the couple celebrated the birth of their daughter. However, nine months later, they had separated.

With Needs still adjusting to the changes in his personal circumstances, there was the added trauma that came with having attended the Ariana Grande concert at the Manchester Arena in May 2017, when 22 people - some of them children - were killed in a terror attack. He had gone to the gig with Gunning, who has previously discussed the horror of being caught up in the aftermath of the bombing.

The accumulation of several life events took a heavy toll on Needs. "There were a lot of hardships in my life through 2016 and 2017. Michael and I experienced the Manchester bombings together, and that came on the back end of the personal stuff I had going on - a family bereavement, as well as going through a public divorce.

"It put me into a really bad headspace, to the point where I tried to take my own life. Luckily, I didn't succeed in that.

"With the help of friends and through opening up more, I grew into this space where I felt like I'd like to see more of a change. I can only do that by making other people aware, by sharing my own story, not because I like the limelight but I feel that if you can make yourself vulnerable, it might be inspiring to someone else."

Harry Needs, Michael Gunning
Image: Needs and Gunning used their swimming network to raise thousands of pounds for charity and make a strong statement about the importance of promoting good mental health

In May 2019, he channelled his energy into a Guinness World Record attempt which carried a message promoting positive mental health.

"I arranged a charity event - 100 swimmers, including myself and Michael, who would swim 50m each to break a world record. We did it by a couple of minutes - we absolutely annihilated it. That was to raise funds for Mind. We made a ton of money, and we still hold the record now!"

The event was held at the pool in Stockport where Gunning trains and Needs teaches classes as part of his PT business. Yet when Britain lurched into lockdown in March 2020, the place that gives both men purpose was shut off from them. Within weeks, the Olympics was postponed, throwing Gunning into a vortex of anxiety.

"This time last year, I was going through quite a dark time," he says. "When the pools and everything shut down, I had no idea where I was supposed to be. I'd find myself lying in bed later in the mornings, as I didn't have a routine.

"Not having that built the pressure even more. I knew that I should be working out and keeping on top of things, but I just wasn't doing it."

Training hard, sharing a truth

With Needs' help, he got his groove back and developed an alternative programme that factored in the daily freestyle and butterfly strokes in the backyard pool, as well as home workouts and fresh training and dietary options. "I felt a lot more mentally stable with that.

"A year later, I haven't been able to go to competitions and race, and I haven't yet earned my place on the team. It's still a waiting game. So, it's now about doing everything that I can that's in my control. If I qualify and the Games go ahead, I'll know that I've done everything I possibly can."

For his part, Needs has become a convert to the invigorating benefits of open-water swimming and making the most of the great outdoors, linking in with the 'Connect With Nature' theme of Mental Health Awareness Week 2021.

As well as keeping an eye out for each other as mates, the challenges of home schooling (Gunning is godfather to Needs' daughter, Summer, who he co-parents with Adlington) and chasing after dogs Pablo and Monet have ensured both men are busy away from their specific exercise regimes too.

Meanwhile, Needs experienced another positive wellbeing moment last June when, writing on his Instagram, he discussed his experiences of being bisexual. It was the first time he'd shared that part of who he is in public.

"The stars aligned for me - it was Men's Health Week, Father's Day, and the end of Pride Month - and it felt like the right time," he explains.

"It was about embracing my authenticity, and actually coming out of lockdown being who I truly am and feeling confident with that.

"I wanted to share in the hope that other people don't oppress how they're truly thinking about themselves."

Harry Needs, Becky Adlington, Michael Gunning
Image: Needs and ex-wife Becky Adlington have a five-year-old daughter, with godfather Gunning lending a hand with childcare - and even home schooling

Arriving at that juncture was the result of self-care and self-awareness. "For me, it was about a destination to love. I guess because I was always happy in the heterosexual relationships I was in, that if I was in love, there was no need to mention it - and I was in love at 17, and committed in a very long-term relationship.

"So up until my mid-20s, there was never really that opportunity to explore my true authenticity, even though I knew that that's who I was deep down.

"In short, it doesn't matter who I'm with based on gender. I'm not really too fussed as long as I'm happy, the person that I'm with is happy, and hopefully my friends are happy for me too."

He's quickly reassured of that by a nod and smile from Gunning, who went on a similar journey under the gaze of a reality TV show audience - he took a short break from sport in 2018 to take part in The Bi Life, having previously tended to skip over thoughts on his own sexuality due to being immersed in the life of an elite swimmer. Through the experience, he learned a lot more about himself.

"I'd never understood my feelings to other people before," he says. "At the time, there were a lot of questions. I thought, let me just go and explore and see who I am.

"With the words we all have to define ourselves, it can feel scary to label or limit yourself. When I'm in my swimming bubble, it's not a priority. But now I know that I'm definitely gay - going on the show helped me get in tune with my feelings."

Needs watched with interest, supporting his best friend, and over the time that followed, he grew more confident around his own identity.

"I was so undereducated on LGBTQ+ culture," he admits. "I'd never really explored my own personal sexuality. I felt that if I'd self-identified as something, it would be hypocritical of me - to say that I am something without exploring that side of myself."

SHEFFIELD, ENGLAND - JUNE 28: Harry Needs of Stockport Metro in action during the Mens Open 50m Butterfly heats during day three of the British Gas Swimming Championships 2013 at Ponds Forge on June 28, 2013 in Sheffield, England. (Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)
Image: Needs also swam butterfly during his competitive swimming career representing Great Britain

Being in a same-sex relationship for the first time during 2019 was a natural development, and finding that the support from family and friends was stronger than ever after he opened up to them, he was ready to answer affirmatively when a question came up in an 'ask me anything' session with his Instagram followers.

"Using my own social media was a way of controlling the narrative. So many times, stories can be misconstrued. It's important to have an authentic message if you're trying to be true to your personal journey."

There was some subsequent pick-up in the media, and additional interview requests - and both housemates prepared themselves for possible assumptions. "We thought people would run off and think that we were in a relationship," says Gunning. "When two people come out in the ways we had done, and then if we're living together, that's just a thing. But we're not!" They both laugh. "I couldn't put up with him in a relationship!"

They were secure enough in their friendship so as not to worry unduly. Needs explains: "We're still trying to break stereotypes of two queer men living together as best friends - it's automatically categorised as something it's not. You can be emotionally mature enough to live with your best friend and just want the best for one another."

Gunning agrees on the need to move away from stereotypes, particularly in sport. "There's a pressure that's put down on men to act a certain way, to fit into this image of what a man should be like - especially an athlete as well. We've got to break away from that. We need our own identities, and to be known for ourselves rather than being that 'masculine man'."

Challenging Covid, inspiring confidence

The festive period brought unexpected, additional stress. Gunning was hoping to travel home to see his family in Kent, at a time before the pre-Christmas lockdown was announced. He took a coronavirus test to check that he would be safe to travel but was shocked when it came back positive.

"We were so good. We didn't go out, we stuck to the rules. The pools were open back then so I must have caught it at swimming, or something that I touched," says Gunning.

"Everyone got tested around us and they were all fine. So, we stopped and isolated at home. I really felt for Harry because no one wants to be taken away from their daughter at Christmas and I felt responsible for that."

They each developed symptoms - first Gunning, and then Needs - but were able to shake off the virus within a few days of each other. "We were very low, mental health-wise," says Needs, "because of the sacrifices we were having to make to keep everyone else around us safe. I'm glad we have such a strong friendship; we would have struggled even more without that.

"I would urge people not to underestimate the virus - keep doing what the government are advising. If someone as fit as either of us can be affected, it shows you need to do the right thing."

There have been no lasting effects - Gunning was soon back at peak fitness - and he is now relishing his forthcoming trips to Scotland and Italy, and the buzz of hitting his best butterfly times when it really counts. He senses a shift in elite swimming towards being more inclusive, although on a global scale, it's still complicated. It's something he's thought about in the approach to May 17, which is the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia.

"Going to competitions around the world, I have seen that sometimes I've been treated differently," he says. "That's not necessarily in a bad way - some people don't really know what they can say. But showing that and treating me differently are forms of homophobia."

Michael Gunning, Jamaica swimmer
Image: Gunning regularly uses his platform on social media and in his role as a Stonewall Sport Champion to talk about equality and inclusion

He mentions how at certain events, there are forms that athletes are asked to fill out and some have a diversity and inclusion section. "On sexuality, in the past I've put 'prefer not to say' - but certainly this summer or in any competition now really, I'll proudly write 'gay' on there. Educating others on what it means to be LGBT+, what people go through and their experiences, can really help."

Raising awareness around what is specifically biphobic is important too, says Needs. "The misconception of being bisexual is that you're greedy, or that you're a certain 'percentage' in what you're sexually attracted to.

"I think everyone is on a spectrum and mine is constantly interchanging. That can be quite confusing for others as it changes from day to day, but really it's about the connection with the person, a lot more than just the gender."

They're both comfortable describing themselves as queer too, and would like to help with some education around that word in sport. "I feel it's a friendly term - it's not confining me to a space. For instance, I don't like that we have 'straight' clubs and 'gay' clubs - so where do you go if you're bisexual?"

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Gunning and Needs share their messages ahead of the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphobia and Transphobia on May 17

Watching the midweek Brit Awards - an event fully embracing of creativity and diversity that included a memorable rendition of 'It's A Sin' Olly Alexander and Sir Elton John - encouraged them both to contemplate what sport might learn from the world of entertainment. Over 50 athletes who were LGBT+ and out participated at Rio 2016, and it's estimated that the number will more than double at Tokyo 2020.

"It's amazing to see that representation," says Gunning. "When we come back to sport with the Olympics and next year's Commonwealth Games, by seeing people that you know are in the LGBT+ community just being their authentic selves, it can be a massive inspiration for people watching at home."

Needs agrees. "I think sport will head that way, to the point where people do feel included and authentic. It's just about how they get the confidence to get there, particularly in highly masculine sports. It will change but unless you start to see more people open up and share their own stories, that change is never going to happen. I'd urge people to keep advocating, whether they have a big or small platform, to get that across."

Communicating a little bit more about themselves has certainly boosted the mental health of both men. Gunning thinks back to the charity swim which Needs organised. "So many people got in touch and shared what they'd been through, the highs and lows, as part of that event. It got us all talking, and I guess we've been able to build on that in the lockdown periods."

The universal uncertainty of Covid-19 isn't over yet but perhaps it's helped us tune into what really matters. "You question it much more now, how it's affected each of us and our mental health," says Needs. "It brings you back to that core message - it's about being kind to people."

Sky Sports is a member of TeamPride which supports Stonewall's Rainbow Laces campaign. Your story of being LGBT+ or an ally could help to make sport everyone's game. To discuss further, please contact us here.

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