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Openly Gay Olympic Athletes Give Us Life

By Ginny Gilder

Adam Rippon, Men's Single Skating Free Skating, PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games, 12 February, 2018
Adam Rippon, Men's Single Skating Free Skating, PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games, 12 February, 2018. Photo credit: Andy Miah

Oh, ye Olympians, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways:

I love thy exuberance, thy unalloyed passion, and unabashed desire to excel. I love thy seizing of the moment and the spotlight to showcase thy best. I love thy allowing, nay, inviting me to glimpse the size of your hearts, to cherish your boldness, and to embrace the offering of your humanity, its unique expression and exercise. I love that you somehow make my expression and pursuit of my own humanity, albeit far removed from the venue of sport, snow or ice, and likely with less superior skill and less relentless determination, seem possible and worthy of pursuit.

Simply, I love your ability to dazzle, amaze, and inspire.

How do you do it, offer up your bid for perfection, so brazen, a daring acknowledgement of such a common human longing, and yet so humble, reaching so high, intimately aware of the odds’ steeps? Your expression of raw desire hangs out for all to witness. No hiding yourself or your outsized dreams here, win or lose, whether you smash a record or break a bone.

That’s what it takes—all of you, to bring it—your best, to your performance. When there’s nothing to hide, that allows you to focus 100% on the challenge before you, the mental and the physical, to quiet your mind and enter the zone of serene performance without succumbing to the unique and exquisite pressure-cooker of the Olympic Games.

To contemplate the wide diversity of your group, whose members share such naked dreams of greatness without regard for nationality, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexuality, is to witness your making of a world that is so broadly relatable as to weave a web of connection around and throughout the much larger and more complex, more disheartened and suffering world beyond. No matter what each one of us in the privacy of our own selves may fear about that external world’s harsh judgment, the Olympic Games give us hope that we, too, can rise and shine, surprise and delight, contribute to the ongoing story of what it means to be human.

You showcase what’s possible, what unrelenting determination, that never-say-die, je ne sais quoi that most of us can only marvel at, can bring to life. In spite of how untouchably prepared you are, your dream somehow becomes mine.

Of all the Olympians, I confess, there is a tiny handful, that has a special place in my heart. That’s you, openly gay athletes, a total of fifteen, more than double Sochi’s seven, out of the 2,952 athletes projected to compete in ’18: Australians Barbara Jezersek and Belle Brockhoff; Austrian Daniela Iraschko-Stolz; Belgians Jorik Hendrickx, Kim Meylemans, and Sophie Vercruyssen; Canadian Eric Radford; Czech Sarka Pancochova; Dutch Cheryl Maas and Irene Wust; Swedish Emilia Andersson Ramboldt; Swiss Simona Meiler; Americans Brittany Bowe, Gus Kenworthy and Adam Rippon. For your courage to perform, to bring your best and challenge yourself in such a shiny and hot, almost burning, spotlight, is only exceeded by your generosity in sharing the fullness of yourself, including those aspects that one may argue have nothing to do with your athleticism, but everything to do with your unique composition of humanity. I love how high you hold your heads, your calm, frank acknowledgement of your sexuality.

You force the world’s continued reckoning of what it means to be human. We need that. We need to challenge the energy wasted on judging ourselves and each other—not just a distraction, but a derailment. What matters is the contribution each of us can make, based on our unique combination of talents and passions.

To all the young people who see you not only perform with grace, but live that way, well, it’s no exaggeration to state you give them life. You bring sunshine to dark fears, light the way to living in a world habituated to hiding.

Oh, the freedom to be yourself, to express yourself, to pursue your dreams. Even if you don’t exactly hit the mark, what a gift you give us all, Barbara, Belle, Daniela, Jorik, Kim, Sophie, Eric, Sarka, Cheryl, Irene, Emilia, Simona, Brittany, Gus, and Adam. You show a way forward for many you will never know: first, because you are Olympians; additionally, because you have not shied away from embracing yourselves, instead defying and challenging the naysayers and the critics, who sometimes seem to rule the world with a demoralizing ruthlessness. Whether you make it to the podium or not, you are stars, like the ones up above, pointing the way.

Does it matter to be out about your sexuality? Yes. Does this topic belong at the Olympics? For sure. For possibility shrinks in the face of nay-saying shrieking—not just an individual’s, but the world’s. All of the grandness of human progress, our best collective moments and eras, starts with the efforts of individuals. Crush them, you crush the future.

But you are uncrushable when you stake out your space to be yourself, when you choose to live a life defined by doing what you love and loving who you love. That’s where the impossible loses its first syllable; not just for you, but for all of us who see you. When we see ourselves in you—and we do—we see that this kind of life is available to all of us, regardless of nationality, religion, gender, and, yes, sexuality. And if that’s not inspirational, I don’t know what is.


About the Author 

Ginny Gilder is an Olympic silver medalist in rowing, founder and CEO of an investment business, and co-owner of the Seattle Storm, and author of Course Correction: A Story of Rowing and Resilience in the Wake of Title IX. The mother of three children and stepmother of two, Gilder lives with her wife, Lynn, and their two poodles in Seattle, Washington. Follow her on Twitter at @ginnygilder and visit her website.