Michael Gunning: Jamaica swimmer’s rise in white-dominated sport
“I guess I’m known as the black, gay swimmer who wants to be the Usain Bolt of the pool.”
Michael Gunning says it with his trademark wink and smile, but there’s a word he keeps coming back to in a more serious tone – “lucky”.
A 26-year-old former Great Britain swimmer, Michael Gunning now competes for Jamaica after switching in 2016. He is one of very few black athletes in a traditionally white-dominated environment, and says he feels “lucky” to be competing at the highest level in the sport he loves.
He feels “lucky” too, he says, to have experienced what he calls “only a little” discrimination en route to the top.
“There was the time I had acid thrown at me in a science lesson at school,” he says. “To be honest, though, I don’t know whether it was because I’m black or because of my sexuality.”
Over the course of a conversation that takes in Gunning’s commitment to the Black Lives Matter movement and on-going campaigns for LGBTQ+ equality, it becomes clear his experience of abuse goes much further than one incident. Even now he is often assumed to be a track athlete when he dons a Jamaica shirt.
And yet throughout our interview he consistently turns to the positives. How he hopes to inspire those dealing with the same challenges he has faced. His plans to compete on his sport’s biggest stage in Tokyo next year. The process of learning about yourself, and not being afraid to show others what you find. The feeling that life is short, and no time should be wasted.
Because Michael Gunning is also “lucky” to be alive. He survived the 2017 Manchester terror attack, in which 22 people were killed. It changed him forever.
The abuse started almost as soon as Gunning set out on the path that would take him where he is now – a two-time World Championship competitor, the holder of several Jamaican national records with the Olympics in sight.
“I’d hear ‘don’t black people sink?’ over and over when people smelt chlorine on me and found out I’d been training before school,” he recalls.
“It was really hurtful and made me question myself, but I guess even then I loved breaking stereotypes – and showing off my medals was nice too.”
Michael Gunning channeled his frustrations as best he could and endured the verbal abuse, but when it turned physical – and acid was thrown at him – his attitude changed.
“It didn’t hurt or burn me, but my school clothes changed colour and it was embarrassing walking around knowing people had picked on me,” he says.
“It really knocked my confidence. I didn’t want to go back to school so I tried to make excuses and say I was ill.
“If I’m honest, though, after the bullying I threw myself into swimming as it was my escape from the negativity and the anxieties I had.”
It was around this time that Gunning’s brother Luke began to be stopped by police. He hadn’t done anything wrong.
“He’s quite a big lad and there were times when he’d be out on his bike and he’d be stopped because he matched a description of someone who’s broken into a house in the area,” recalls Michael Gunning.
“It was just because of the colour of his skin. I’ve spoken to so many people who have experienced the same and it is totally heartbreaking.”
Since the killing of George Floyd, and the global momentum that has since gathered behind the Black Lives Matter movement, Michael Gunning has become more and more invested in the fight against racism and campaigns to bring about meaningful change.
“There is so much black tragedy that I’ve read about over the last few months and it’s devastating,” he says.
“Black History Month is a really important time to help educate people and even for me to learn about some of the amazing people who lost their lives fighting to overcome slavery and inequalities.
“It’s vital too that we celebrate black successes and share positive stories.”
In swimming, the United States’ Olympic champion Simone Manuel and world gold medallist Alia Atkinson of Jamaica are two standout contemporary black role models, but Michael Gunning grew up in an era when there was little celebration of the historic achievements that came before. The abuse he faced was a reflection of that.
While Enith Brigitha of the Netherlands (1976 bronze) and Surinam’s Anthony Nesty (1988 gold) claimed historic firsts for black swimmers, records suggest that freestyler Kevin Burns (1976) and backstroker Paul Marshall (1980) – who won a relay bronze – are the only known black swimmers to have competed at an Olympics for Great Britain.
Open water specialist Alice Dearing, 23, is aiming to become Britain’s first black female Olympic swimmer at next year’s Games in Tokyo.
She is a lead ambassador for the newly launched Black Swimming Association, which has highlighted the severity of under-representation in the UK by promoting Swim England statistics which state that 95% of black adults and 80% of black children do not swim.
Gunning believes there is a “phenomenal amount” of “untapped potential” in BAME communities around the world and hopes to play a role in transforming his sport.
“Parents who have Afro hair and are black often come up to me and ask if their kids will be accepted and I know having more role models will help,” he says.
“There are already more people of colour around poolside and I’m so excited to see more gold medals won by black people because the potential is there.
“I want to be that beacon of hope and prove that black people can succeed in the sport and I hope we can smash the stereotypes out of the water for good.”
Growing up, Michael Gunning refused to let the abusers damage his resolve. His route to elite level took in age-group titles, junior success with Great Britain and two gold medals at the 2016 World University Games.
He was focused. He was so committed to sporting success that for years he stuck to a strict, self-imposed routine which meant little socialising and certainly no dating.
That was the norm for him, until the night that changed everything.
Gunning is a self-confessed Ariana Grande “mega fan” and with the singer performing just a few miles from a friend’s home he decided to “let his hair down” for one night and attend what was – at the age of 23 – his first concert. It was in Manchester, on 22 May 2017.
“You have to be so committed as a swimmer, you don’t go out much and never drink so I was really excited about it as I love Ariana Grande,” he says with a half-smile as he recalls the initial joy of the night.
At 10:31pm, just moments after the singer had finished her final song and fans were beginning to leave the Manchester Arena, a suicide bomber detonated a home-made explosive. The resulting blast killed 22 people.
Gunning grimaces as he recalls the moment. He was about 30 metres from the blast. “Less than the length of a swimming pool.”
He adds: “I was wearing a tight white T-shirt and by the time I was out of the building it was red. It was covered in blood from people rushing past me to safety who’d either been hurt or had been covered in it after the blast.
“I was in a state of shock and it made me realise that everything could have been taken away in that moment.”
Gunning sought help from a therapist after experiencing a form of ‘survivor’s guilt’. He wished he could have done more to help on the day, but he also learnt much more about himself from those sessions.
“I’d again thrown myself into swimming and made the decision to switch to Jamaica as I realised how short life can be and I didn’t want to miss the opportunity,” he says.
“The counselling made me realise everything that I’d been supressing though and it wasn’t just about that night, it was also my sexuality.
“Deep down I always knew I was attracted to guys, but 100% being bullied made me feel like I had to supress any feelings like that.
“It knocked my confidence and in a sport like swimming where you’re not wearing much I was worried people would treat me differently or be more reserved because they knew I was gay, so I just never addressed it.”
That all changed in 2018 when, after a chance meeting with Courtney Act, he was invited to take part in TV dating show ‘The Bi-Life’ which the drag queen was presenting.
It saw a group of Britons descend on Barcelona for the summer where – in front of the cameras – they would explore their sexuality.
Gunning took centre stage in the season premiere following the revelation that despite being 24 at the time he had never been on a date with anyone – male or female – in his life.
“It was just the most incredible time,” he says, with a beaming smile.
“It wasn’t live so I didn’t worry about how it was being received back home, I could just enjoy the experience and then reveal that I’m gay when I was comfortable to do so.
“When it was aired I was completely prepared and relaxed. It was nice that I didn’t need lots of chats with people about coming out because by then the whole world knew!”
In 2006, Jamaica was dubbed the “most homophobic place on Earth” by Time magazine. Fourteen years on, sexual intercourse between men is still punishable by imprisonment, while same-sex marriage remains illegal.
It is therefore understandable that Gunning admits he was “nervous” about the potential consequences of coming out after switching allegiance to the nation where his father was born.
“There is an LGBT community out in Jamaica, but it’s not very visible and people are having to hide it,” he says.
“It’s so difficult for people in many of the Caribbean countries to speak about their sexuality.”
The swimmer says he has received a “few negative comments” and homophobic remarks from people who disagree with him representing Jamaica but insists that reaction in the country has been “99.9% positive”.
“So many people have been supportive and I’m opening minds in the process,” he adds enthusiastically.
“I just hope that one day we get to a point where we can speak openly and be ourselves without fear of judgement or repercussions.”
Since making his international debut for Jamaica at the 2017 World Championships, Gunning has set national records in the 200m butterfly as well as the 200m and 400m freestyle events.
He was also awarded Jamaica’s ‘Aquatics Sportsman of the Year Award’ in 2018, but the swimmer has even bigger ambitions.
“Although I loved competing for GB it reached a point where I knew I could do more in terms of inspiring by switching and I want to do that at the Olympics,” he says.
“It would mean everything to be a Jamaican gay swimmer competing on the biggest stage there is and being my open, honest self.
“Many people worry about whether they’ll make the cut because of their imagine or certain stereotypes, but one of the things I’ve learnt is that there is no set mould to becoming the best swimmer.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re white, black, gay, lesbian or anything else and it’s crucial people around the world see what’s possible.”