New Zealand-native Blake Skjellerup, 29, represented his country in the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, finishing 16th in the world in short track speed skating. Just a few months after the games, he publicly came out as gay and has since become one of the foremost advocates for gay athletes around the world. He'll be visiting Cleveland for the first time as a Gay Games ambassador.
How did you get connected to the Gay Games as ambassador? When was that?
I became ambassador in 2011, I believe. A friend of mine, Matthew Mitcham, who's also an ambassador for the Gay Games, introduced me to somebody who's on the board of the Gay Games in Sydney, and they asked if I'd like to come onboard as well.
How does a kid from New Zealand grow up to be a world-class speed skater?
My brother went to school with a guy who was a speed skater and he suggested that I give it a go. For me, it was something that clicked very quickly and I realized I loved doing it and I was also pretty good at it. From that, I went to my first international competition, which led to another. I set some goals, and a few years later I was competing in the Olympics.
What sports do most kids in New Zealand play? I'm assuming it's rugby, right?
Most definitely rugby, that's how most kids spend their time. Before I started skating, I played rugby and once I started skating I stopped rugby completely. I saw the opportunity there that it could create for me.
So you were pretty good, immediately?
It took work, definitely, but there was sort of a natural ability to begin with which made it a little bit easier for myself.
What kind of training goes into that growing up?
As much skating as I can. I was only doing two hours a week of actual speed skating, on speed skates, but I was also doing an additional five hours on ice hockey skates during public sessions just to get that extra feel and extra movement on the ice.
What's something about speed skating that people might not know?
Well, it's very fun to begin with. Once you get to learn to skate side to side, the speed is something that just takes people by surprise and how amazing it feels to be moving that fast on ice.
So at what point in your life did you know you were gay?
It's difficult to say at what point. I realized that I started having feelings for the same sex at the age of 16 and sort of as time went on, I struggled with accepting that. The biggest thing was there were no identities for me to relate with, and I felt isolated and alone. As time went by and I matured, had life experiences, I came to accept it more. It wasn't until I was 22 that I actually said to myself that I was gay and accepted it.
So you didn't have any gay role models at that point in your life?
No, not when I was 16 through the age of 22, and that was the hardest part; there was just no one I could relate to.
How do you compare the level of acceptance and consciousness of homosexuality in New Zealand with the United States?
Well, at the time — I won't say I was not accepted, because I can't know that because I wasn't out. But I was bullied in high school and the insults that were being hurled my way were those typical names. I don't want to say it, but 'faggot' and 'gay' were what I was being called and that really drove me into isolation. Now we have full equality under the law, same-sex couples can get married, full protection in terms of discrimination laws. But I still am the only openly gay athlete in my country. I don't know what that means, but I do know there are others out there, and there's work to do in the world of sports and letting athletes know they can be themselves and still be competitive in sports.
I'm assuming you've been following the stories of Jason Collins in basketball, Michael Sam in football and Robbie Rogers in the MLS?
Definitely, it's been a great thing, especially for young people to see if they happen to be identifying as LGBT. In the past, sports hasn't been something that has had openly gay people in it, but now that it's changed with the likes of Robbie, Jason and Michael, having them is really important.
One of the things I thought was cool about Michael Sam was that his teammates at Missouri knew before last season; and then when he came out publicly, it wasn't all that controversial.
Yeah, and I think that's one of the greatest things we've seen: Michael Sam has been greatly accepted. It just shows how far people's perceptions and their education has come over the past five to 10 years and understanding that homosexuality isn't a threat. It doesn't in any way threaten society, it really strengthens it.
How do you see the level of tolerance of gay people in sports?
I don't see any issues with it in the areas that are specifically in the spotlight. Let's take Michael Sam, for example. After he came out, if anything bad was to happen, people would have rallied behind him and would have supported him and through that we would have seen a change. Luckily, he was supported from the get-go. The biggest problem we face now is definitely in those lower levels — high school sports, college sports — where it can be a little more difficult to come out, and I think that's where work needs to be done to ensure that athletes can be themselves.
How far after the 2010 Olympics did you come out?
Let's see...four months.
Was announcing four months after the Olympics a conscious decision? Had you been planning on that timeframe?
The timing wasn't conscious, per se, it was more coincidence. A friend of mine who's a freelance writer was doing a story on LGBT athletes on any level and he asked me if I knew of anybody or if I'd be interested on commenting in the article. I initially said no, but I sat and thought about it a little bit longer and I changed my mind, and the whole article ended up just being about myself. It just happened to come out four months after the Olympics.
Now that you've been out for a few years, how has reality differed from what you perceived your life might be like as an openly gay man?
That's a good question. I think when I was 16, I was starting to figure out who I was, and my biggest fear was that I couldn't lead the life that I wanted, which was to get married and have children. And as I've matured, I came to learn that none of that was true: I could get married if I wanted to and I could have children if I wanted to. Four years after coming out, life couldn't be any better, and I know that I can have all that.
And now you're such a public face supporting LGBT causes. Do you feel a certain responsibility to do that, or is it just something you want to do?
I'd say it's a responsibility. I know how it worked for me, and I think any young person or athlete shouldn't have to go through what I went through. I think it's important to speak out and to share my story. I hope that it could make it a little bit easier for someone else to accept themselves further, to come out sooner, and to educate coaches and administrators and allies, letting them know that a teammate could be gay and they should make their environment supportive and encouraging.
We're about to have thousands of gay athletes come compete in Cleveland. What advice do you have for a closeted athlete who may be reading this?
My advice has always been the same for gay athletes: Your sport is what makes up who you are more than your sexuality. It's the biggest part of your life. You do it day-in and day-out. Number one, you need to make sure you're supported to begin with. The last thing you want to have is to lose your position in your sport. I know for some people that has happened, and that's a sad situation, but I think as we progress, it isn't going to happen anymore because there are people out there who are creating awareness and supporting those people who want to come out. We've seen a lot of great movement, especially in the college level where athletes are being supported and are coming out, and the teams, colleges, everybody is getting behind them. That's just going to trickle down to more universities, more colleges, and it's going to make it easier for everybody.
Yeah, now young gay athletes have at least some successful openly gay athletes to look up to, which you didn't necessarily have when you were coming up.
That's what was hard, I felt it starting to weigh on me. I felt the pressure weighing on my performance. And once I came out, I felt that weight lifted off my shoulders, I just needed to be a good athlete. A coach, an administrator, a dean of a college or university needs to think about that: If this is going to be affecting my sports team, they'll learn to make it an encouraging environment for LGBT athletes.
Anything else you'd like our readers to know?
I'm just excited, looking forward to coming to Cleveland and supporting the Gay Games. It's going to be so much fun.