Swimmer Michael Gunning is young, handsome and hotly tipped as a prospective Olympic medallist. Even if Tokyo 2020 Games (deferred to 2021 as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic) is eventually cancelled; 2024 isn’t a million years away. Currently living in lockdown with the decorated swimmer Rebecca Adlington and her ex-hubby, the 26-year-old 200m butterfly stroke specialist has the world at his feet.

Apart from being seemingly destined for the distinction of joining that tiny, exclusive cohort who achieve Olympic glory, there are a few things about Gunning’s story that interest many people who know precious little and care even less about competitive swimming, the Olympics, or sport in general.

First, he’s chosen to compete for his father’s birthplace, Jamaica. This alone makes him a historic figure. Can you name any other distinguished Caribbean swimmers? And I’m not being a bit previous describing him as “distinguished” either. He’s not only the national record holder in his specialist event but also one of the all-time fastest swimmers of any nationality.

Second, he’s one of a still all-too-rare breed — an openly gay, high-profile, currently competing, elite athlete. To put this in perspective, the famous hurdler and world record holder Colin Jackson came out at fifty, decades after retiring, despite his sexuality being an open secret for many years.

Michael Gunning dreaming of Olympic swimming glory
“I’ve just got to keep getting my head down for Tokyo 2021.” | Twitter

Arguably, Gunning first achieved public prominence by participating in that familiar but stubbornly controversial route to fame, a reality show. He used his participation in The Bi Life as his public platform for coming out. Whether this was naïve, foolhardy, brave, or some blend of these is anyone’s guess. But he received much support from the other show participants, and both the show’s and his own social media following.

Why does Michael Gunning matter? There are undoubtedly many young men and women with similar backstories. However, precious few of them have braved coming out. Young LGBTQ people are disproportionately more likely to suffer depression, commit self-harm and attempt suicide. Given this fact, one wonders why there aren’t many more Michael Gunnings.

Yet this story is far bigger than Gunning himself. Jamaica’s notoriously open hostility towards LGBTQ people makes the athlete’s decision to represent the Caribbean nation, instead of Great Britain where he was born and trained, more remarkable and brave. It’s also notable that the Jamaican sports establishment, which enjoys considerable cultural clout at home and abroad, has reportedly welcomed the swimmer with open arms. Of course, it didn’t hurt his case that he’s a world-class contender with a realistic prospect of winning Olympic, World Championship, Commonwealth Games and continental medals. Still, even this fact is unlikely to have cut much ice in the recent past.

Swimmer Michael Gunning talks Tokyo 2021

So, where does Gunning’s still evolving story lead us? It’s led to him engaging an audience that elite athletics and their sponsors are always striving to reach: young people. He’s not just Gunning for glory. Michael Gunning’s very unapologetic presence is a challenging, affirming and empowering influence on how the world could, should, and is indeed changing for the better. Seldom has a young celebrity staying in their lane been such a cause for hope.

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