The Great Britain and Jamaica swimmer is retiring from his sport but wants others to learn from the racism and homophobia he has had to contend with throughout his career
Little drops of water run down Michael Gunning’s face, looking less like tears than moving reminders of all he has been through as an international swimmer who just happens to be black and gay in a straight white world. Gunning has swum for Great Britain and Jamaica, one of the most dangerously homophobic countries on the planet, but he is now back in the garden of his childhood home in Orpington, Kent, on a beautiful morning.
“I’m nervous but excited,” Gunning says, “because I’ve got so much more to give the world. I haven’t achieved all I wanted in my career but, now I’m retiring from competitive swimming, I don’t feel I failed. Yes, I haven’t qualified for the Olympics or won that world title. But the amount of lives that I’ve impacted means more to me than medals.”
Gunning pushes his swimming goggles above his forehead and, during our photoshoot, he tries to stop his face cracking open into a brilliant smile which is full of joy and pride. He is meant to look straight down the barrel of the lens but he can’t help himself. That smile keeps returning even though we have spent 90 minutes talking about some harrowing subjects.
The 28-year-old Gunning has remembered how, when he was a schoolboy just down the road, he used to write The Swimmer, rather than his name, at the end of his assignments. It was one way to blur his identity and avoid the boys who threw acid at him. He buried his real self and did not have his first sexual experience until he was deep into his 20s.
That did not stop people warning him, during a swimming competition in Dubai, that he should walk more like a straight white man. It was similar to the casual racism which made so many people question whether a black person could swim at the highest level.
“At school there weren’t many mixed-race people,” Gunning says, “and I had lots of voices telling me black people can’t swim. I should do something black people would succeed at, like athletics. Sometimes I just wanted to be a straight white swimmer who had only the pressure of competing because, when I went to competitions, people often said: ‘You must be a runner.’ I said: ‘Yeah.’ It was too much hassle to say I’m a swimmer and they’d go: ‘Well, how?’ That conversation would bring me down and I always want to be up. It’s only in recent years that I’m proud to say I’m a swimmer.”
Gunning asked to do this interview as a way of announcing his retirement. He trained alongside the formidable Olympic champion Adam Peaty, his close friend, for many years in the GB squad. His strong friendship with Becky Adlington and her former husband, Harry Needs, meant that they asked him to be godfather to their daughter. Gunning has swum in two world championships, broken numerous Jamaican national records in freestyle and butterfly and he was desperately unlucky not to swim at the Olympic Games in Tokyo last year.
“My ambitions have changed,” he says. “I could swim at the Commonwealth Games this year, and go to the next Olympics, but I wouldn’t gain anything unless I was winning a medal. I now want to make sport equal for all. I want to encourage black people to swim. I want to help change homophobic laws around the world. I want to make an impact.”
Gunning has a charisma and dynamism more suited to television extravaganzas than chlorine-scented swimming pools. But he also carries a serious intent, for he has endured too much to avoid some hard truths about race and homophobia. He confirms the statistics produced by Swim England which state that 95% of black adults and 80% of black children in this country do not swim. “I do lots of school visits and ask [black] parents: ‘Why don’t you encourage swimming more?’ The answer is always the same: ‘Why would we encourage them to do something they won’t succeed at?’ Hopefully people like me will show it can be done. And let’s not forget that being able to swim can save your life.
“I don’t like to be called ‘The gay black swimmer’ in headlines. I’m an international swimmer but I had to go through that to bring about change. Hopefully in 10 years’ time the next black gay swimmer will be seen just as a great swimmer representing their country.”
The Commonwealth Games will be held this summer in Birmingham but, as Gunning explains, “35 of those countries still have homophobic laws. A high number still have the death penalty as punishment. As a swimmer who represented Jamaica, while training in the UK, I have an opportunity to highlight such issues. These Games can act as a catalyst for change because this is Birmingham’s chance to shine and show people how equality and diversity works. We can be true to ourselves.”
Gunning could not be himself for much of his life. “I knew I was very different at school,” he says. “I’ve always got a big smile on my face but I felt people didn’t like me being happy. I tried to fit in and the best way to do that was to suppress my sexuality. But I still had acid thrown at me in science when I was 15. I was doing well and I got praise from the teacher. I was really happy and people didn’t like that. So they threw acid on my blazer because I’m naturally very bubbly and outgoing and they wanted to put me back in my place.
“I was scared to tell my parents so I lied and said I spilt acid. My mum had to spend 60 quid on a new blazer but I didn’t tell her about the bullying until much later because I knew she would storm down to the school. But whether or not I moved class I still felt shame. I still felt I had to be someone different. I had no role model to look up to as a gay black kid. I guess I want to take on that role now.”
Gunning remembers how he and Needs, his best friend who came out as bisexual after he and Adlington separated, were at the Ariana Grande concert five years ago, on 22 May 2017. A suicide bomber caused the death of 22 people that night. Gunning ran from the devastation and became traumatised with guilt.
Counselling helped him and made Gunning realise he could not keep hiding. That Christmas, in the very house where we now sit, his mum became the first person to whom he came out. “We were very emotional and I remember thinking: ‘This shouldn’t have to be a thing.’ My mum was great but I didn’t have the guts to tell my dad. I said to my mum: ‘Can you tell Dad and the family?’ It’s one of my regrets now.”
His dad is from Jamaica and “he had lots of questions. How did I know? I’d never had a sexual experience at that time. My dad knows how gay people are treated in Jamaica and he was concerned but after we spoke he was absolutely fine. He just wants me to be happy.”
Had he switched to competing for Jamaica by then? “Yes and I knew the heavy weight of the laws and homophobia in Jamaica. But I’m so proud, so blessed, to have represented my dual nationalities. Not many people get that privilege. I had worried that people were not going to support me – but they did. From the swim association down most people were great but of course, online, there was lots of hate, lots of death threats.”
Does he feel fear? “If I was out in Jamaica, I would worry. But in the UK I feel very safe and fortunate. So many people in Jamaica shared their experiences of how their parents would chuck them out, disown them. They tried to beat the sexuality out of one person and it was like conversion therapy. It was inhumane. So I think the fact I was that beacon of light helped lots of people because, in Jamaica, gay sex is illegal. You get put in prison. Even if you’re seen holding hands with a person of the same sex you are seen to be in a criminal relationship.”
Gunning looks up. “But I will continue talking out and I would like to go back to Jamaica. I’ll make a bigger impact if I face it there.”
There is regret that Gunning did not swim for Jamaica at the Tokyo Olympics. He had secured his qualification for 2020 but the pandemic changed everything. He couldn’t travel or work with his coach or team. Gunning had to train on his own but he was still on track to swim in Tokyo last year when Fina changed the qualifying markers. He had just one competition to secure his Olympic place. With little proper training, amid so much pressure, he just missed qualification.
But the decision of Jake Daniels, the young Blackpool footballer, to come out last week was an inspirational reminder to Gunning of his new objectives. “To see Jake taking on that responsibility, at 17, was amazing. If I’d had someone like that to look up to when I was young my life would have been so much easier. But I am here now and I want to help people like me. I would like to work in television, maybe in education, and bring that aura of positivity I feel every single day.
“I’ll still be in the swimming world because I’m so passionate about getting more black people to learn to swim and help change stereotypes around the world. I always hated the word retirement because I’m not retiring from swimming. I’m only retiring from competitive swimming, because swimming will always be part of my life. I wouldn’t be the person I am today without swimming.”
Gunning’s parents, and his grandfather, glowed when I said how proud they must be of him. “We are,” his dad said. “We really are,” his mum echoed.
An hour earlier Gunning told me that his grandad had not wanted his daughter to go out with a black man. But Gunning’s mum gave her dad an ultimatum to allow her to be with the person she loved. Her dad relented and Gunning’s parents were married in Orpington.
“I remember the first photo they took of him holding me,” Gunning says of his grandad. “There is such love in his eyes. To see how far you can go from that previous viewpoint to such love shows how quickly attitudes can change.”
Gunning laughs when I ask what his grandad thought when he was the scantily-clad pin-up on the cover of Attitude, the gay magazine. “At first I was worried but we have such an amazing relationship. He was just happy for me.”
In the spring sunshine all the little drops of water have dried on his face. “Whatever my journey is next,” Gunning says, “I will try hard. I’m a little scared, a bit daunted, because it’s unknown waters. But I’m ready to face it and make a difference. I want to make a real impact.”