Michael Gunning is on a mission.
The British-Jamaican swimmer grew up hearing “black people don’t swim” from classmates. Those classmates would probably eat their words today if they saw Gunning’s litany of championship titles…or his qualification for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics (which, like everything else, were postponed due to COVID-19).
Gunning let the ridicule motivate him. “For me, it was just a motivation to prove them wrong and get selected for Team GB and be away for weeks from school and then come back and show them my medals,” he tells Reuters.
Gunning grew up in the UK, taking his first national swimming title at age 13. By age 16, he qualified for the European Open Water Championships.
Three years ago, having survived the bombing of the Manchester Arena during an Ariana Grande concert, Gunning decided to emigrate to Jamaica. That move also presented its own problems. Gunning is a gay man, and Jamacia has a long history of homophobia. In 2006, Time actually named the country “the most homophobic place on earth.” Even today, gay sex remains illegal, queer people have no anti-discrimination protections under the law, are forbidden from adopting, and roughly a third of all men who have sex with men will contract HIV. 2017 also saw the murder of LGBTQ rights activist Dexter Pottinger who was brutally murdered in his own home. His killer received only a 12-year sentence for manslaughter.
Still, for Gunning, his prominence offers an opportunity to show his fellow Jamaicans that queer people can be happy, healthy and successful.
“The world is turning slowly and I think it is changing and I’m sure in time, Jamaica will accept LGBT people and legislation will change, but it’s a slow process and I think the more role models we have, the better,” he says.
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Gunning qualified to represent Jamacia in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, which are postponed until 2021. For Gunning, the coronavirus delay is just another reason to keep working it in the water.
“We’ve worked so hard for it for so long and, yes, we’ve had a little dip in the road, and it’s been pushed back a year but I’m so excited,” Gunning admits. “I’ve just got to keep getting my head down for Tokyo 2021.”