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Home   /   ‘I used to turn up to training and feel depressed, all the time’ – How openly gay Team GB swimmer Dan Jervis overcame fears of coming out in his sport and religion.

A devout Christian and Olympic swimmer, Dan Jervis has faced numerous obstacles on route to self-acceptance as an openly gay athlete. Jervis recalls his journey and his goals as one of swimming’s only openly gay male figures.

Dan Jervis sits and ponders his long, winding route to self-acceptance.

“I have been able to put it to the back of my head when I’m racing,” he explains. “I’ve learnt over the years that when I’m in a racing environment I’m a bit of a horse, I can just put the blinkers on and focus on what I have to do, and then think of it afterwards.

“But my mental wellbeing, I used to turn up to training and feel depressed – all the time.

“I’m a 26-year-old man, I’m kind of in my prime right now and I should be happy, I should be enjoying my life. I wasn’t.”

The Team GB 1500m freestyle specialist is not the first athlete to open up about his struggles of feeling supressed in his sporting environment. And he certainly won’t be the last.

The representation of gay men within men’s swimming is scant. Mark Foster was a pioneering figure for LGBTQ+ representation in the sport, but his coming out in 2017 followed years after his retirement. Coming out as gay mid-career – no less, while competing across the globe at Olympics and Commonwealth Games – presents far different challenges.

Dan Jervis is heading to the 2024 Olympic Games to represent Team GB in Paris this summer.

The lack of active elite male LGBTQ+ swimmers – on one hand – made the task even more daunting. However, Jervis says that very lack of representation spurred him to go public with his sexuality.

“Around the world there are hundreds and thousands of swimmers out there and I think at the moment there’s only like, maybe even five openly gay swimmers,” Jervis says. “That does not add up properly.

“I’m very fortunate I’ve worked my way onto a platform now in the swimming world my name is kind of known so I would like to think that people who watch me swim can see Dan’s swimming on the world stage and he’s being who he is and he’s being proud of who he is.

“He actually likes who he is now because I went for years without liking myself.”

For some outside the LGBTQ+ community, it can be hard to fathom just how taxing the coming out process can be. For athletes, the process is often intensified. Sport has never established itself as a wholly accepting place for expression of sexuality – and athletes’ public status generates possibilities for onlookers to make their views heard.

“When I came out to the wider world, I was nervous because I built this thing up in my head,” Jervis says. “I thought the only reaction will be negative, I thought I was going to see horrible things said about me online and that is something I would’ve struggled with because I’m very conscious of what people think of me.”

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Jervis said he wants to be a “role-model” as one of few openly gay male swimmers. (Credit: Richard Pelham/Getty Images)

The spotlight on LGBTQ+ athletes can be largely attributed to the media coverage that ensues when one publicly comes out. Jervis opted to announce his sexuality through an interview with the BBC – and the story was soon picked up by other outlets worldwide.

The Welshman was particularly surprised to see the Sydney Herald pick up his story: “Where did that come from?” He laughed.

Such coverage could, in some ways, be seen as a deterrent for athletes desire to come out. Some argue that news coverage detracts from LGBTQ+ athletes being able to live a ‘normal’ life.

However, Jon Holmes, founder of the Sport Media LGBT+ group, insists these stories are hugely important to tell.

“I don’t know if I want it to be no longer newsworthy [athletes coming out],” he explains. “Because I think it’s great and it’s a story I want to read. It makes me feel that people like me can see themselves represented.

“With LGBT fan groups, quite often I hear people say we’re working towards a day where we don’t need this anymore, why would you want that? This is a community you have created where people have come together to celebrate who they are.

“As we know, having other people who are out in public life is empowering. It’s really important for other people to see you don’t have to hide who you ate to be successful.”

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Jervis won the men’s 1500m Freestyle Paris Final at the 2024 British Swimming Championships. (Credit: Morgan Harlow/Getty Images)

If tackling the sporting world as a gay man was not treacherous enough, Jervis also had to contend with his religion. A devout Christian, Jervis says that being gay “is not the done thing.”

Jervis felt isolated. Not only did he feel he was the only gay swimmer, but he also had nobody to look up to within his religion.

But his intentions to make his sexuality public were always clear. He himself had struggled in his environment, and he did not want anybody to suffer similarly.

“I myself am a very proud Christian,” Jervis says. “It was really hard because it’s not really the done thing. I mean in Christianity we’re accepting of everyone, but it is quite hard to do sometimes.

“To be honest with you I didn’t know many, if any gay, open Christian people and I know how hard that was for me and I didn’t want anyone else younger or older to go through that as well.”

Jervis was sure he would receive negative backlash following his coming out – such is the nature of the task after withholding his truth until the age of 26.

But he didn’t. It was quite the opposite.

A younger Dan Jervis would often privately message openly gay athletes to display his gratitude for their openness and visibility. Now he receives that very same sentiment.

“It’s something I’ve always wanted to be like a role model,” Jervis says. “Whether it be in the LGBTQIA+ community or not. I’ve always wanted to be someone people can look at and say ‘Dan’s doing that right.’

“I think the reason why I came out on a public scale and the reason I did it at that time is because I knew it was just before the Commonwealth Games … it was going to be beamed around the world on live television. I knew I was going to be standing in front of that camera with millions of people watching.

“In these countries where being gay is illegal, that’s not right and I wanted people in those countries to see me and think Dan’s being who he is.”

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June 2024