Michael Gunning: Gay swimmer overcomes prejudice to chase Olympic dream

BBC News

Michael Gunning is targeting the Olympic Games in Tokyo next year
Michael Gunning is targeting the Olympic Games in Tokyo next year

Openly gay, black swimmer Michael Gunning believes the prejudice he faced growing up inspired him to work harder for success.

“When I was in school, a lot of people said to me ‘you know, black people sink in water’,” he says.

“Because I was quite good as a youngster, qualifying for nationals and different teams, I knew that wasn’t true at all.

“To be doing something that everyone said I couldn’t do was amazing and inspired me to work harder.”

Gunning, 25, grew up in Kent, but his family are from Jamaica and he now holds three national records after switching his allegiance to the Caribbean island nation. His goal is to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.

He was further motivated to make the most of his talent after being caught up in the 2017 Manchester Arena terror attack when 22 people were killed and hundreds injured at an Ariana Grande concert.

“I was so close to where the bomb went off, about 300m away,” he told the BBC’s LGBT Sport Podcast.

“For me, that was a massive turning point. I realised that life was so short and you have to grab every single opportunity you can.

“It was shortly after that that I decided to go down the Jamaica route and inspire even more people out in Jamaica.

“I do feel so honoured in the position I’m in to go out and inspire and be that black role model for the younger guys out there.”

Michael, who swims for Stockport Metro, had little enthusiasm for swimming as a boy after being reluctantly taken for lessons.

“I kicked and screamed; I did not want to get in that pool,” he said.

But at the age of 11, his times were beginning to catch the eye and as a teenager he kept his focus despite despite the shocking comments.

He now holds Jamaican records in the 200m butterfly, and both the 200m and 400m freestyle, and has competed at the last two World Aquatics Championships.

One person Michael looks up to is American Simone Manuel, the first black female swimmer to win Olympic gold, also breaking the Games’ 100m freestyle record at Rio 2016.

“History is being broken as we speak. It definitely needs more black people, black swimmers, black athletes around the world doing sport that we don’t normally see,” he said.

Michael is a role model for the LGBT community, having come out as gay on dating show The Bi Life last year, but it has taken time to accept and understand this part of his identity.

“From an early age, I always suppressed my sexuality,” he said.

“I pushed it all down and deep below the surface, and it got to the point where I didn’t feel sexually attracted to anyone because I’d been so good at pushing those feelings down inside of me.

“Because I got so ingrained in doing it so early on, going into my older years now, I’m still struggling to come to terms with it and be myself out in the open.

“People from different countries have come up to me and asked me for a photo, and I always ask ‘is that because of the record I broke?’, and it’s like ‘No, you’re the LGBT person that’s out in sport and it’s amazing’.”

Gunning has been chosen as one of Stonewall’s Sport Champions for 2019 as part of the charity’s Rainbow Laces campaign, along with others including football referee Ryan Atkin and British race walker Tom Bosworth.

The goal is now Tokyo 2020, with Michael waking up every day at “crazy o’clock” to try and achieve his dream.

“It’s coming round so quick but after coming out and being myself, I’ve been offered so many opportunities to train with so many different teams across the world,” he added. “I’m just going to train my hardest and see what happens.”