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Michael Gunning ‘suppressed sexuality’ after racist bullying

The swimmer tells the Attitude Body Issue how the intersection of his Black and gay identities affecting him in his youth.

By Alastair James

Words: Alastair James; Photography: Dean Ryan McDaid

Michael Gunning says being bullied in school made him suppress his sexuality, as he reveals how experiencing racism and homophobia first-hand has fuelled his fight for equality in sport.

Appearing on the cover of the Attitude Body Issue – out now to download and to order globally – the swimmer and 200m Butterfly specialist says he hopes to be the representation in the sport he missed growing up.

“I knew I was different”

Opening up about his youth, Michael says: “I really got bullied when I was at school, especially for the colour of my skin. I knew I was different and if I’m honest I think that’s why I suppressed my sexuality because that was something else I was very different in.”

The 27-year-old goes on: “People used to tell me that I should stay on the athletics track, that I should do something a black person would do, you know, stay in a sport that is black dominated. It was always hard because I’m mixed-race […] I think that made me even more segregated from everyone else”

Breaking barriers and busting myths, Michael says he’s very proud of where he is now. “I’ve been through a lot on my journey […] So, to finally be true to myself to be authentic and just show people it’s ok. I’m an openly gay athlete, I’m an openly gay swimmer and I’m happy.

Taking us back to the very beginning Michael says he began swimming aged four and joining his first club three years later.

“Swimming just really takes me to a place of total zen. I love being in the water and setting myself challenges and breaking the stereotypes. When I was younger the teachers used to tell me, I couldn’t get from one end of the pool to another in a certain time and I’d love to challenge them”

Michael Gunning wears trunks by Speedo (Photography: Dean Ryan McDaid)

He cites his proudest moment to date as representing Jamaica at his first World Championships, which he describes as “just amazing”.

Covering 65-70Km a week he proves the swimmer’s routine is very strict with two training sessions a day. But he says (much to our chagrin – have you seen him?!) he can get away with eating “little carbs”, although he does assure us he does have a strict diet. Sadly, like all of us he’s had to deal with being locked inside for large chunks of the last year and a half, which isn’t great from a training point of view.

On body, he says “everyone is so different whether you’re black, white, really ripped or not. In swimming it’s all about performance – getting from one end of the pool to another” but Michael recognises it is a tough struggle managing mental health and comparing himself to others.

Finally, he says, “When I was growing up I never really had that representation in sport – no one really looked like me, no one really acted like me, so I think I did feel quite lonely in that sense.

“Hopefully, now I’m on the world stage and being that inspiration to many they can hopefully follow in my footsteps.”

The Attitude Body Issue is out now.

Subscribe in print and get your first three issues for just £1 each, or digitally for just over £1.50 per issue.