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Canadian Olympic Luger John Fennell Comes Out
Posted by: Claude J. Summers on 05/29/14
Last updated on: 05/29/14
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John Fennell

On May 27, 2014, one day before his nineteenth birthday, Canadian Olympic luger John Fennell has come out in the pages of the Calgary Herald in a fascinating feature story by Vicki Hall. The story, which beautifully captures the isolation and frustration of life in the closet, profiles a perceptive and articulate young man who came out to his teammates at the Sochi Games and then later to his family and friends.

Fennell, a student at the University of Calgary who was valedictorian of his high school class, is regarded as a gifted athlete with the potential of becoming one of the great lugers in the world. The elder statesman of the Canadian luge team, Sam Edney, described him as "the picture perfect luge athlete. He's tall and lean. He has long arms for leverage at the start. He's got incredible power and strength, and at the same time for an 18-year-old kid, he's extremely mature."

Fennell gets his athleticism naturally. His father is former Canadian Football League superstar David Fennell and his older brother is Michigan State nose tackle David Fennell, Jr. He played football, soccer, and basketball before settling on the Olympic discipline of luge.

Described on the Canadian Olympic team website as "part of the next generation of Canadian luge," Fennell competed at the 2012 Youth Olympic Winter Games in Innsbruck. He made his debut at the senior world championships in 2012, where he won the bronze medal in the under-23 category. At Sochi, he finished 27th in the men's single event. Inasmuch as lugers reach their maturity in their 20s and 30s, the performance in Sochi, where he was expected to gain experience but not to medal, was regarded as "Nothing spectacular, but nothing to be ashamed of."

However, what Hall explains in her excellent article, the real significance of Sochi for Fennell was that it gave him an epiphany: "at an Olympic training stop in bitterly cold Latvia, the strapping 6-foot-4, 205-pounder" resolved that "He could no longer live a life shrouded in secret."

"I had been training like crap all week--hitting, crashing and flipping," Fennell told Hall. "I was sitting in the start handles and I had almost this suffocating moment. I started hyperventilating, and I couldn't breathe."

"I thought to myself, 'how the hell am I brave enough to go down this hill if I can't be brave enough to be who I am?'"

In coming out, Fennell received the aid of Canadian gold medalist swimmer Mark Tewksbury. He also told Sam Edney and other members of the luge team, and relied on the support of out speed skater Anastasia Bucsis and members of the Canadian Olympic Committee staff.

Still, Fennell's Sochi experience was shadowed by an acute awareness of the homophobia that marked the Russian games and the paranoia that such homophobia generates.

After returning to North America, Fennell set about the process of coming out to friends and family. He broke the news to his mother in Calgary. He told his father and brother on a football trip in the United States. He traveled to universities all over Western Canada to tell his friends.

The result of unburdening himself to the people he felt closest to was a great sense of freedom. "You know that feeling when you're falling asleep and you have that feeling that you're falling, and you hit the ground, and you're suddenly awake?" Fennell asks. "Well, that's what it was like for me. I was totally, fully conscious all at once. A whole new aspect of myself opened up and it's very liberating."

He no longer felt the need to hide. As Hall explains, "No more secrets. No more changing pronouns in conversations about personal relationships. No more fretting over perceived cracks in the story."

Fennell's decision to come out publicly was made in the hope of serving as a role model for those still suffering in silence.

"I'm an athlete. Realistically, I put on a spandex suit and slide down a mountain. I'm no message board for political movements. But we need to have leaders in our sport community. If it takes a 19 year old to step up and do that, I'm more than willing to use my voice or the platform that I've been given to give a figurehead to gay youth in sport."

Congratulations to John Fennell.

Fennell's story is reminiscent of the coming out of another Canadian jock and inspiring young man, Scott Heggart, who was the subject of a 2012 feature story and blog post here.

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