Canadian luger John Fennell had a moment of clarity in a training session two weeks before the Sochi Olympics. A man who had no reservations about lying on a sled and whirling down an icy chute at 85 mph finally felt compelled to face a very different fear.
“How in the world can I be brave enough to go down this hill and not be brave enough to be who I am,” Fennell said.
Fennell decided then he would be true to himself, beginning at his first Olympics. How he came to that decision was reported in the Calgary Herald on Wednesday.
He came out to teammates and Canadian Olympic Committee officials after the luge competition. Fennell’s act of bravery took place in what he called a tough environment. He traveled to Russia feeling like a basket case and very aware of the situation with the nation’s anti-gay legislation. He also knew there were no other openly gay male Olympians in Sochi.
“Of all places, I had to pick out that one [to come out],” Fennell joked in a phone interview on his 19th birthday on Wednesday. “There was quite a bit of hype going into it because of the gay rights issues in Russia, which wasn’t the case when I landed. Once I got there, it was a very safe environment. … Once I got to the Olympic Village, I felt like part of the family.”
Fennell, who started luge at 10 and was a 14-year-old spectator at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, finished 27th in his Olympic debut in Russia, before coming out.
He waited until after the team relay four nights later to tell the first person, Canadian luge captain and three-time Olympian Sam Edney. Fennell was so caught up in what he would say that he didn’t realize he was talking to a man who felt awful.
Edney had just missed perhaps his only shot at an Olympic medal by one tenth of a second hours earlier. Edney, 29, and three more of Fennell’s teammates had finished fourth in the luge relay.
Fennell confided in Edney, who responded with a big hug and told the teenager, “Nothing changes.”
“It was pretty relieving to hear that,” Fennell said.
The Calgary native then told more teammates and Canadian Olympic Committee members before leaving Russia. He told his family and friends when he arrived home in Calgary.
Fennell was one of three 18-year-olds to place in the top 30 of the Sochi men’s luge competition. He’s committed for another four years with an eye on the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. He says he feels perfectly confident to travel to compete again in Russia, or anywhere.
“I think it can be said when you have something eating at you and a lot of emotional stress and anxiety about something, especially in this nature, once that’s been resolved or dealt with, it’s a very liberating feeling,” Fennell said. “You can put 100 percent effort back into training and sliding, too. It will fundamentally shift the way I see my sport.”