Michael Gunning may have retired from competitive swimming three years ago; but since then, the elite stroker’s star power has only grown.

The British native finished up his big year on the award ceremony circuit, recently attending BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year festivities. This year, the honor went to Mary Earps, Team Great Britain’s goaltender.

“Always great being in the room with so many sensational athletes & award winners!,” Gunning wrote on Instagram.

Unsurprisingly, he was dressed to the nines, sporting a white jacket from Asos, sleek black turtleneck from River Island and a belt from Gucci.

Gunning, 29, splashed onto the international swimming scene when representing Jamaica, his father’s home country. As a child, he overcame the debased notion that Black people are inherently poor swimmers, winning his first national swimming title at 13 years old.

Quickly, Gunning became the most accomplished swimmer in Jamaica’s history. He holds the country’s records for the 200-meter butterfly and 200- and 400-meter freestyle events. But his position on Jamaica’s national team conflicted with his identity as a gay man. The Caribbean island nation is one of the most homophobic places on earth, and same-sex relations are still illegal.

For a while, Gunning used sport to suppress his sexuality.

“I almost tried to kind of push that down, suppress that and just try and be that swimmer and own being a swimmer and having that unique skill,” he told The Mirror in a recent interview. “But obviously, I think it got to a point in my life where I just, I knew I needed to come out, and needed to just be myself.”

That pivotal moment happened in 2018, when he came out publicly on a reality dating show, The Bi Life. Set in a villa in Barcelona, the show starred nine British 20-somethings who were either bisexual or questioning their sexual orientation.

While it may seem unusual to come out in such a public setting, Gunning says the forum felt right.

“It might seem strange but it was a more natural way to come out, rather than having to sit down everyone I knew to tell them individually,” he told Outsports.

Still competing for Jamaica, Gunning received his share of homophobic messages. But he also found widespread support, which carried him through.

“Receiving so much hate and abuse online was incredibly tough, but the positive messages really got me through the darkness and showed me that I was never alone,” he told Queerty.

Though Gunning intended to compete in the Tokyo Games, the COVID pandemic upended his plans. He retired from swimming in 2021.

But in many ways, that was just the start of his work. Gunning is a fierce advocate for the Black and LGBTQ+ communities.

This past summer alone, he partnered with Speedo to encourage young people of color to take up swimming; started his own racing clinic; and presented at the Just Like Us Awards, which celebrate those improving the lives of LGBTQ+ youth.

“I’ve got so much more to give the world,” he said in an interview with the Guardian. “The amount of lives that I’ve impacted means more to me than medals.”

He’s kept up that momentum this fall, contributing to BBC and Sky Sports, as well as continuing to hit the conference circuit.

Gunning also turned heads with his Halloween costume: a stunning rendition of the Black Panther. He coincided the tribute of his favorite Marvel superhero with the U.K.’s Black History Month.

“It’s been over five years since the first Black Panther film came out, and three since Chadwick Boseman sadly passed away. Both the movie and Chadwick’s courage have inspired me so this felt like a good choice for cosplay — and I’ve had a great response to it!,” he said.

With a new year on the horizon, Gunning promises to only increase his star power. His foremost goal is always providing visibility to the LGBTQ+ community, so closeted kids across the world don’t feel alone.

“I was so ashamed of my sexuality growing up, and I didn’t want anyone else to feel that shame,” he said to the Daily Mirror. “It’s taken me to go through my journey to realize that so many people probably feel like they aren’t good enough, like they don’t deserve to be alive, they don’t deserve to be happy in this world. And I just wanted to prove that actually, we can be happy, even if you’re different.”

Gunning is certainly showing that, and we’re happy to see him thrive.

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