Pride & Sport: Team Canada sport inclusion ambassador John Fennell shares his story

Sochi 2014 Olympian John Fennell, is one of Team Canada’s sport inclusion ambassadors. In honour of Pride Month, Fennell shared his experiences as an LGBT+ athlete. 

“I remember the Olympics as a confusing time. As a young closeted athlete, I felt like I was out of place,” Fennell says of his time at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games, when he was a 19-year-old Canadian luger.

Leading up to Sochi 2014, Fennell reached out to Mark Tewksbury, who became his mentor, as he  already identified himself as openly gay.

“Mark Tewksbury has been my biggest ally in finding my identity in sport. When I first met Mark, I couldn’t even say the words ‘I am gay’. He helped me build a network of people I could trust to help me through one of the most difficult times of my life. He has been a role model in every sense of the phrase. I can’t thank him enough.”

Mark Tewksbury during the medal ceremony at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona in 1992.

Fennell’s journey to the Olympics was a lesson in authenticity. He learned the difference between going through the motions to standing for something he believed in.

“As an Olympic athlete, you’re given the opportunity to share your story and hopefully by doing so, you can inspire others to do the same. I knew that the Sochi Olympics opened an important dialogue about LGBT athletes – the problem was that the conversation didn’t include voices from any of those athletes. I was surprised that no athlete in Canada had stepped up to spark this conversation and I felt more than willing to be the one to do it. I decided that I wanted to change that.”

In his mind, Fennell found himself viewed as a role model.

“People from around the country, many who I’d never met before, reached out to tell me how inspired they felt to watch me compete. I knew that I couldn’t be that person if I wasn’t true to myself.”

From an athletic perspective, reaching the Olympics has been Fennell’s greatest athletic achievement. He trained eight years for a four-minute competition. Fennell reflects on the journey to get to that point which taught him success and failure, perseverance, and commitment.

John Fennell greets a young fan during the Calgary Stampede Breakfast at the 2014 Celebration of Excellence in Calgary, June 6, 2014. COC Photo by Winston Chow

In May 2014, it was a Wednesday morning after he returned from the Olympic Games that an article was released in the Calgary Herald to let the world to know he is gay.

“I headed to my class at the University of Calgary and by the time I got to settled in, my phone was dead. I was inundated with messages of support. I could not keep up. Throughout the day, I was showered with support from my teammates, peers, and from strangers around the globe. This was a conversation that needed to happen and I am so proud that I was able to be a part of it.”

When asked if he could share how he developed the courage to come out, Fennell replied by linking back to luge.

“My sport is all about bravery. It’s about toeing the line between being comfortable and out of control – it’s hard to be brave when you’re afraid of yourself.”

In the coming months, Fennell connected with other LGBTQ+ athletes in Canada. He began to build a larger network of LGBTQ+ athletes who would go on to become some of his closest friends.

“The best part about sharing my story was that I gave other athletes the catalyst they needed to share theirs too. Our stories carried similar themes; fears of being rejected by our teams, judgement from our fans and coaches, distractions from our sport, feelings of being inauthentic. I remember I was with Anastasia Bucsis [who came out publicly in September 2013] when I first heard about the founding stages of the #OneTeam team program. We both just gave each other a glance during the conversation and in that moment, the game changed.”

RELATED: Pride & Sport: Anastasia Bucsis opens up about the importance of mental health 

“The steps towards diversity and inclusion taken by the Canadian Olympic Committee following Sochi have changed my life. I am so proud to be part of a movement that has left an impact on so many people’s lives. I’ve got to share my story dozens of times to thousands of people. The most meaningful feedback that I ever receive is from students that say my story has inspired them to make a change in their own life.”

John reflected on his first Pride Parade: “Probably the best day of my life was in 2014 at the World Pride events in Toronto.” The Canadian Olympic Committee organized over 50 athletes to march in the Pride Parade that day to show support for its athletes.

Fennell recalls feeling so free and accepted that he thought to himself, “this is what it means to be part of Team Canada.”

Taking his talents off the track, as a #OneTeam ambassador, he continues to use his voice as a platform for gay youth in sport, creating a safe and inclusive environment.