This is it. You’ve made it to the Olympic Games. You’ve trained your entire life for this moment.
You walk in the Opening Ceremony. You compete and even achieve your lifelong dream of standing on the podium while proudly wearing the maple leaf.
Yet, something feels off.
You‘re overwhelmed with a feeling of unfulfillment because although you’re competing on the biggest stage in the world, you’ve been wearing a mask to shield who you are in fear of what fans, judges, coaches, teammates, friends and family may think.
It’s the fear of losing everything because of your sexual orientation.
For Olympians like Mark Tewksbury, Anastasia Bucsis and Eric Radford, this feeling was all too familiar. For years, they felt alone and ashamed because of their sexuality. It wasn’t until they were open with themselves and the world that they finally felt free.
Now, being able to express who they are, they’ve become role models for generations to come – future Olympians who hopefully won’t feel the need to hide their true selves.
Their journeys through sport and within themselves is now being told in a children’s book, Proud to Play, by Erin Silver.
“The fact that my story has found itself in a book that is especially aimed at youth and young teens, it just warms my heart.”
– Anastasia Bucsis
In the book, Silver shares the stories of LGBTQ+ Olympic athletes and coaches across generations, giving kids someone to look up to, showing them they aren’t alone and they have a place in sport no matter what.
“Everyone should be accepted and welcomed [in sport],” Silver told Olympic.ca. “Sport should be about how you’re playing or what kind of teammate you are, not who you love or who you’re attracted to. As Canadians we have so much to be proud of — also looking forward, there’s still so much we can do.”
The first chapter of Proud to Play opens with Tewksbury’s story – a fitting start to the book as he was the first Canadian Olympic athlete to come out publicly as gay.
“Moments like this, when I open up a book and I’m the first story, it really touches me,” said Tewksbury. “I remember just for a moment that path that led here. And then to see nine fantastic stories following that, it brings us right to the present. I think that’s wonderful.”
The world first came to know the two-time Olympic swimmer at Seoul 1988 where he was part of the men’s medley relay team that won silver. It would be after his incredible gold medal performance in the 100m backstroke at Barcelona 1992 that people would know him as an Olympic champion. But six years later, the world would truly get to know him.
“I was the first to come out in 1998. It was a huge decision at the time,” Tewksbury explained. “I did think it would be a few years until the floodgates would open, but it took until Sochi for more athletes to come out.”
For a decade and a half, Tewksbury remained the only openly gay Olympic athlete in Canada.
It wasn’t until September 2013 when speed skater Bucsis, in the midst of qualifying for her second Olympic Games, would break the silence to talk about her sexuality and being part of the LGBTQ+ community.
“I publicly came out in opposition of Russia’s anti-LGBTQ laws,” Bucsis said. “I just thought, ‘I’m a very privileged kid from Calgary; I have a wonderful family, friends and teammates.’ Yet, I know how much I struggled […] I can’t imagine being a youth in Russia.”
She explains that keeping her sexuality from friends, family, and teammates led to anxiety, depression and thoughts of suicide — a feeling of loneliness she says she didn’t want any child to go through.
“I’ll admit, there were some dark days in that journey trying to figure out who I was, and trying to love and accept myself,” shared Bucsis. “Looking back, I’m so grateful for speed skating and it truly is the love of my life. And sport also was the greatest vehicle to be able to learn to love myself.”
Bucsis said she doesn’t want anyone to feel isolated or that they are not seen, heard or understood.
“The fact that my story has found itself in a book that is especially aimed at youth and young teens, it just warms my heart […] My story can continue to empower and remind people they aren’t alone.”
Four years later, figure skater Radford was part of Canada’s gold medal in the team event at PyeongChang 2018. He made history as the first openly gay man to step on the top of the podium at an Olympic Winter Games.
By winning the gold while being true to himself, Radford explains that he felt as though a weight was lifted off him.
“Once you come out, it creates a bit of a release,” Radford said. “You start to feel more comfortable, you start to feel lighter, but I also felt it on the ice which was a bit of a unique feeling for me when I was performing with Meagan [Duhamel]. I felt like I was freer to just express myself in a very particular way, and it felt amazing.”
With everyone’s story being different about their journey with their sexual identity, what these Olympians can all agree with is that they hope to be the role models they didn’t have growing up.
Even though there is still lot of work to be done to ensure everyone feels they have a place in sport, Proud to Play shows how the world of sport has evolved. From the time when Tewksbury came out in 1998, to the book’s publication in 2021, it’s progress that is encouraging.
“I’m just really proud to be part of this book because I feel like change is happening,” said Tewksbury when reflecting on how people have grown to accept and include those in the LGBTQ+ community. “The book is hard copy proof that progress is being made.”
With so many athletes featured in the book, Bucsis says that it gives the opportunity for kids to relate to athletes across generations and sports and experiences. She explains that there wasn’t one particular story that she related to growing up, but because of Proud to Play, she hopes kids can see that every story is different.
“I think this book offers a really important perspective for people that maybe didn’t consider this before.”
– Mark Tewksbury
“Having a book like this when I was a kid would’ve given me so much more confidence. It would’ve given me people to look up to and let me know I wasn’t alone,” explained Radford. “I think a lot of us come out because we’re hoping to change and make things a little easier for the next generation or whoever might be struggling with their identity or their sexuality.”
The book gives a glimpse into what these athletes went through, showing how strong they came out the other side and that things get better — despite the present moment sometimes feeling unbearable.
“You need to have the ability to see things from other people’s point of view,” Tewksbury said. “And I think this book offers a really important perspective for people that maybe didn’t consider this before.”
With the continued acceptance and progress of those in the LGBTQ+ community, the book is clear that everyone should be Proud to Play.
Proud to Play is now available.