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Blake Skjellerup: Ace Athlete

Going into winter 2013, Blake Skjellerup was on top of the world. The Olympic speed skater was coming off a great year of training and a massively successful crowdsourcing campaign to help cover his costs. All signs pointed to another chance at Olympic glory in the upcoming Sochi games. Media outlets around the world began touting Skjellerup as the soon-to-be “first openly gay male competing in a winter games.” And then the unexpected happened: Skjellerup missed his automatic qualifying bid to Sochi. By one spot.

In a candid and intriguing new interview, Skjellerup talks with Instinct about all things LGBT and sports. From the plight of LGBT athletes and a Russian boycott to Tom Daley and his own future on the ice—plus, holding out hope that he still will skate in Sochi, out and proud.

How are you feeling now that the initial news of missing out on the qualification has settled in?

I am feeling pretty good, to be honest. I’m obviously disappointed in the outcome as it stands at the moment. But I’m remaining optimistic at the chance that a position does come available for the Olympics. It is what it is. I know that I did my best and there’s nothing I could have done any differently. I don’t have any regrets about the way I raced. I prepared well, didn’t do anything wrong. It’s just the outcome is the outcome, and unfortunately I don’t have any control over that at the moment. But if we look at it from a positive turn, a position may come available. And if it does, that will be fantastic. I’ll be ready if and when it does.

What does a setback like this do to your overall love of the sport?

I don’t think it would sour me, though I’m obviously disappointed. The last four years have been an interesting ride for me, and this last season I have enjoyed more than any other season. It’s been a good ride, a happy ride. Like I said, I know I did everything possible, and I don’t have any regrets. I still love the sport, but what this holds for me in the future, I’m not too sure at the moment.

If you end up not competing in Sochi, will it be that much more of a motivator to try for another games, or will it be a time to reassess your place in the sport?

Obviously not being secure in my position for Sochi isn’t what I quite thought or hoped for, and if I end up not being able to compete, it will definitely be a time for reassessment. It is, unfortunately, a money game. You can’t live, train or compete without it. I’ve been skating for 18 years, and I could most definitely go for another Olympics in four years’ time. I’m young enough and I have the physical ability, but it’ll come down to support and resources.

So you start skating at 10 years old, and then 14 years later you find yourself competing in your first Olympic Games in Vancouver. What was the experience like?

It was an amazing experience! I had tried to qualify for the Olympics in 2006, but that didn’t happen and was upsetting at the time. But I was still relatively young in the sport, and I definitely didn’t have the experience yet. But having not made it encouraged and motivated me even more. It taught me how to work even harder, and I learned what it would really take to get to Vancouver.

I took all that, worked hard and four years later qualified. It was very surreal to have a goal that I had focused for 14 years on come to fruition. The Olympic Games are an event like no other, so it was obviously exciting. You know, the world is watching. [Laughs] I went there with a goal to finish in the top 16, and I did, so I met my goal and, for me, a success all around. It took a lot of hard work, sacrifice and dedication, and it all paid off in the way I hoped that it would.

And at that time in Vancouver, you weren’t publicly out, right?

Yeah. I had come out to my family six months or so before Vancouver, and for me that was very important. It was something that I had been hiding for some time, and I realized that if I was going to go [compete in the Olympics], I needed to have everything off my shoulders. I needed to be honest not just with myself, but with my family and friends. So I came out before the qualifying events.

The topic of coming out publicly had come up with my partner at the time. Would it come up during the Olympics? What would happen if somebody asked me? And I said that if someone had asked me about my relationship status, I would have been truthful. But it didn’t come up. So at the time I guess I felt it wasn’t something that needed to be addressed. But as I thought about it and visited Pride House [a gathering place for LGBT athletes and allies in Olympic host cities], it became something that I did want to do.

Would you say you had a positive coming-out experience?

As a young 16-year-old who was figuring out his sexuality, I was looking for identities and role models, someone I could relate to. Especially in sports! I didn’t believe that I could play sports and be gay. That was a conclusion I had come to partly because the peers in my high school admitted that on to me through bullying, the idea you can’t be gay and play sports. You can’t be gay and be tough. Being gay was something you didn’t want to be. So the journey to come out was long and arduous. But I decided to come out [in the media] because I wanted to share my story. If there are other people out there like me, hopefully I can offer some solidarity.

So a few months after competing in Vancouver, you decide to publicly come out in DNA magazine. It’s expected that someone can feel completely secure in their decision to come out, yet the moment before they actually say it, there’s nerves or fear. How were you feeling the night before the article posted?

I was very confident and secure in my decision. Confidence and security are probably the two things that got me through the journey. [Laughs] I knew I couldn’t change who I was, and I got to a place of being proud of who I was. But that night before the article came out, I was probably more naive than anything. I was thinking, It’s only an Australian magazine. It’s not going to be a big deal. I actually hadn’t even told my parents I was doing the article. [Laughs] Then I wake up the next morning, and everything had—I guess blown up is a good way of saying it. I had a lot of e-mails, including one from my mother, who was quite shocked to open her Web browser and see my face on the Yahoo home page with the words “Gay Olympian.” So I had to apologize for not giving her a heads-up. [Laughs] I was a bit naive to think it wouldn’t be a big deal, but it was a big deal.

Why do you think it was such a big deal? On the grand scale of things, one wouldn’t imagine the coming-out story of a guy from New Zealand would get worldwide attention.

I guess that speaks volumes to the plight of LGBT people in sport. It’s still a very undiscovered avenue for LGBT people. Gay athletes seem quite hesitant to come out. They’re afraid of the repercussions. There shouldn’t be any, but it’s still an unknown as to what people’s reactions would be. And that is a sad situation.

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We've got much more Blake! Be sure and pick up a copy of Instinct's February/March Issue to hear Blake's take on the IOC awarding the games to Russia, his thoughts on competing in a country with homophobic laws and whether he'll try for another Winter Games after Sochi. All that and more are in this issue's cover story, available at Barnes & Noble, at iTunes for the iPad and iPhonr or through our subscription services at (888) 45-INSTINCT

PHOTOGRAPHY BY ALEKSANDAR TOMOVIC • STYLING BY WARREN ALFIE BAKER