When speedskater Blake Skjellerup went for the gold at the Vancouver Winter Olympics this past February, his family, friends, teammates and coaches knew he was gay.
In fact, Skjellerup and his boyfriend, during the limited time they were together during the Games due to the skater's intense schedule during that two-week period, walked around Vancouver holding hands.
"We had limited time to be together, so we wanted to make it as nice as possible," Skjellerup told Windy City Times in his first interview with any U.S. outlet since officially revealing his sexuality.
So how did the two avoid the media's intense scrutiny? Well, no one asked.
"I have seen countless interviews where the interviewer asks whether the person is seeing someone. That never happened to me, no one inquired," said Skjellerup, who was interviewed more than 20 times during his Olympic experience.
Skjellerup, 24, competed for his native New Zealand at the Vancouver Games.
"My best result was in the 1000 meters, coming in 16th," Skjellerup said. "On paper, it has been my strongest event, with six top-15 finishes and two top-10 finishes. Ironically, I felt best in the 1500 meters on the first day of the Games. I struggled to feel comfortable in Vancouver and never really got my groove on."
Still, the experience alone was priceless.
"Vancouver was an amazing experience," said Skjellerup, nicknamed Flake. "It is a sporting event like nothing else. The best of the best are there under the eye of the entire world. It was so many adjectives I do not know where to begin. The Olympics was everything I expected, and more. My performance no way indicated what I am capable of. I was very disappointed in how I performed. But you learn from past experiences and I hope I can apply what I learned into future campaigns.
"I was [ in Vancouver ] for four weeks. I stayed in the Olympic Village for that entire time. There [ was ] a McDonald's in the food hall and I had to try avoiding it until I was done competing. It's very hard to ignore those golden arches smiling at you during breakfast, lunch and dinner."
Skjellerup lives in Christchurch, New Zealand; however, he is now living and training in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
"Training facilities, coaching services and training partners are very sparse in New Zealand, so I have to base myself here in Canada to get the resources I need to be a competitive skater," he said.
So what's next for the speedy Skjellerup?
"I am unsure," he said. "The International Skating Union ( ISU ) has yet to release the schedule for the coming season. I will most likely have a regional competition here in Calgary some time in the fall.
"I am still reassessing my [ long-term ] skating goals. The Olympics was a huge mountain for me to climb, just to be able to get there. It was eight years of always doing the right thing. I had tunnel vision on Vancouver, and now, if through that tunnel, I am unsure which way I want to turn."
But soon he will return to the iceand that means plenty of calluses on his feet.
"I'm from New Zealand and everyone always jokes that we have hobbit feet, because of Lord of the Rings, and I literally do, thanks to 15 years of skating," he said, laughing.
Skjellerup's official coming-out, in early May, came in the Australian gay magazine DNA. And that actually was delayed a few weeks due to printing issues.
"I have been 'out' for quite a while. My family and most of my friends all ready knew. But it became public and international knowledge just this month in the Australian gay magazine DNA," Skjellerup said. "I was approached to do the DNA interview by a friend and I was all for it. I had nothing to hide; no person should have to hide who they really are. I did the interview back in February [ shortly after visiting ] Pride House in Whistler and realized that doing the article was the right thing to do, not just for myself, but for other athletes out there struggling with accepting being gay and still being able to operate in their sport.
"Coming out can be very hard, no thanks to the persona society has placed on being gay, and if I could share my story to help bridge that gap and help just one person accept themselves, I thought it was very worth while."
Ironically, Skjellerup's official coming-out to the world happened the same day that country music singer Chely Wright did the same thing.
"To most people, [ my coming out ] was not a surprise. My family and friends were all very supportive," he said. "Being in a sports team you spend so much time together. People get to know one another very well. So I never had to announce that I was gay as they all were around when I was experimenting. It was not something I announced to the New Zealand Olympic Committee. I did not feel I had to. A straight person does not have to announce their relationship status or sexuality, so why should I?"
Skjellerup first told a close female friend that he was attracted to guys when he was 17.
"I had a lot to deal with before the Games. The selection process in New Zealand is quite grueling and drawn out," Skjellerup said. "Along with training and the pressure of performing, I did not need to add another topic to my Olympic campaign. Media commitments were demanding as it was and my Olympics lasted from day one right to the end. I had to keep up with training as well as competing, media commitments, seeing family and sleep some where in there for [ those ] weeks. It was something I discussed with my boyfriend before the Games, as I knew the impact it would have, but the situation never arose and my performance needed full attention.
"My coach and teammates did know [ before the Games that I was gay ] . There was no reaction [ when they learned ] ; however, I did spend a lot of time with my team in the last year and there was the occasional time where my sexuality was the brunt of the joke. The team I trained with was all European, very liberal, but [ had ] an attitude that, with them being straight, they were better and stronger than I was. It got old, and I stood up for myself; they pertained it was just a joke, but it's jokes like that that drive some people further into the closet."
Skjellerup said being gay in Vancouver during the Olympics was not an issue, and probably never is in that part of British Columbia. He repeatedly saw men and holding hands with people of the same sex in Vancouver.
"Vancouver is a very pro-gay city," he said.
So who's captured Skjellerup's heart? It turns out that he is a student-athlete at the University of Calgary. "He is finishing up his Bachelor of Commerce degree and has just recently retired from competitive cross-country skiing," Skjellerup said.
Skjellerup said he knew only two other gay athletes in Vancouver, although each is in the closet.
"I am sure there were a good number of gay athletes there, but obviously they are not ready to be out for their own reasons," he said. "You never know how people can react or what the ramifications could be from other athletes, coaches, management etc. And at the biggest sporting event in your life, the event you have trained so many years for, the last thing you want to have going on is being treated poorly by anyone because of your sexual orientation. You have so much to focus on and to have the extra stress of being discriminated against does not make it worthwhile for all the hard work you put in to get there."
Skjellerup said he is not certain how formally coming-out will affect his skating. Hopefully not at all.
"I am still the same person doing the same thing," he said. "It may affect me on the international circuit, but I guess I will not know that until competition season comes around. I have not had any major sponsors in my career, but I have had personal sponsors. I have read it was hard for [ Australian ] gold medalist Matthew Mitcham to get a major sponsor after [ the ] Beijing [ Olympics ] .
Skjellerup went to Pride House in Whistler during the Olympics although he did not get to the Pride House in Vancouverprimarily because he didn't know there were two different locations.
"I thought it was a fantastic initiative to give athletes like myself somewhere to go, and just be able to talk with other understanding people," Skjellerup said. "They were really nice there and supportive of me for visiting. I hope it can grow from Games to Games until being homo and heterosexual is on the same level."
Here's more about Blake Skjellerup:
Body language: He is 5'7" and has been skating since he was 10. In addition, he has a metal plate and six screws in his left collarbone after breaking it at the World Championships in Vienna, Austria, in 2009.
Family ties: He has one older brother who has three children. "I love being an uncle to [ them ] ."
Hobbies: "Anything to do with being on the water, [ such as ] jet skiing, swimming [ and ] boating. I find it very peaceful [ on the water. ] "
Little-known fact: He is 1/32 New Zealand Maori.
Quirks: He is addicted to spider solitaire and said he cannot leave the house without his bed being made.
Favorite TV show: It's 24. Skjellerup said, "I would secretly love to be Jack Bauer."
Favorite movies: Face Off with Nicholas Cage and John Travolta, and Speed with Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock
Favorite sport ( other than your own ) : Water skiing: "I love being on the water. If I could retire today and not have to work I would ski everyday and try to make it onto the pro ski circuit by the time I was 30."
Favorite pro athlete: Rafael Nadal
Favorite U.S. city: "In my skating career, I have always been to pretty small cities. Salt Lake City and Minneapolis are the largest cities I have been to. I would have to say Chicago or Boston [ are my favorites ] . I love the Boston accent. I have never been, but it's on my list to get there. I like the history of [ the ] East Coast and the architecture in places like New York, Boston and Chicago.
Thoughts about Chicago: "I have not been [ there ] , but it is definitely on my list of places to get to. I would love to see Oprah and the steel bean."
Thoughts about Johnny Weir: "I think he is a great guy. I have never met him. But he is getting people talking. Yes, he has not announced that he's gay, but if he feels he does not have to, then good for him. We should not have to announce our sexuality. But unfortunately we are a human-rights movement and the more who are out and in support, the better."
Do you think your sport is gay-friendly, and why?: "Maybe; I have never thought about it. It is mainly an individual sport. You are solely responsible for your own performance, different to that of a big sports team where moral and cohesion is important for performance. I believe you can be out and be able to function successfully in my sport with out suffering from homophobia and discrimination."