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Olympic swimmer talks about coming out
by Ross Forman, Windy City Times
2013-07-12

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Elenoa Fonua, Amini Fonua, Hinemoa Fonua. Photo courtesy Amini Fonua.


Amini Fonua, a swimmer in the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, was openly gay for all four years on the swim team at Texas A&M University. He came out to the world this past May. Fonua spoke with Ross Forman recently and acknowledged, "This is my first U.S. newspaper interview," since coming out publicly.

He was a gay freshman swimmer at Texas A&M University in the fall of 2008, boasting an impressive resume in his native New Zealand, where he broke numerous Auckland and New Zealand age-group records.

He had been in the U.S. only once before, a year earlier, for a swim meet in Hawaii, and this was his first time living in America.

"I was very much out, and had some amazing upper-classmen who told me that they'd watch after me. They said, 'If there are any problems whatsoever, let us know and we'll make sure they don't continue,'" Amini Fonua said in a phone interview. "I was very lucky to have a few guardian angels on the swim team looking after me, making sure I was in an environment where I could strive and be at my utmost best.

"It was a dream come true to earn a scholarship, and I know I was offered it because I was great at what I did. Nothing else should have mattered," including sexual orientation.

Fonua shined in the Aggies' speedo. He graduated from the school this past May, and ranks No. 1 all-time in the school's record books for the 100-yard breast stroke, set in 2012. He also ranks No. 3 overall in school history in the 200-yard breast stroke, less than two seconds behind that record, too.

Plus, Fonua was part of three of the school's top five all-time best times in the 200-meter relay, and two of the top five all-time best times in the 400-meter relay.

He was a six-time All-American.

"I look back [at my Texas A&M career] and think about all of the lessons learned, the lifelong friendships formed. I think those four years were amazing; I grew from being a boy to a man, surrounded by the best of friends. I'm really, really grateful that I made the decision [to attend A&M] and I never would change it," Fonua said.

His collegiate highlight, he said, was being named team captain as a senior. "That was really rewarding. It was fun to lead the team as best I could and still maintain some of the best friendships I ever had," he said.

Fonua came out publically in May to defend the school from the perception that it is a hostile environment for LGBT students, coming out in the campus newspaper, The Battalion, after a Student Senate bill drew attention to the attitude of students attending a school the Princeton Review ranked the 7th-most unfriendly LGBT campus in the country.

"I'm very lucky, thankful and grateful that I never suffered anything bad," on campus in College Station, Texas, because of my sexual orientation, he said. "I was out all four years, and had no issues whatsoever."

Fonua said that, in the two months since coming-out to the world, nothing has changed.

"Life continues forward," said Fonua, who has since moved to New York City for an internship at a public relations firm. He graduated with a telecommunications and media studies major.

When DOMA was defeated and the Supreme Court ended Prop 8, the California constitutional amendment that banned same-sex marriage, Fonua replied, "I'm proud of [gay] things that are happening now in the U.S."

Fonua has retired from competitive swimming, at least for the time being. He admits he'll consider returning. He also is considering a foray into full-time coaching. "I definitely enjoy coaching, and I get a fulfillment out of it too, just in a different way [than as an athlete]. I think I could be good at it and definitely make it a passion of mine."

But what a career he's had, especially over the past year-plus.

He was the 2012 Big 12 champion in the 100-meter breaststroke and represented Tonga at the 2012 London Olympics. Fonua holds dual Tongan and New Zealand citizenship.

Oh yeah, he even was the Tonga flag-bearer in the 2012 Summer Olympics Parade of Nations.

"The Olympics were unlike anything I had ever seen or done in life, something I know I might not get to repeat again in life, so I really, really cherish and really, really embrace that memory," Fonua said. "Every time I look back at that moment at [carrying the Tonga flag], I get goose bumps.

"I really cherished that moment because it gave me a chance to think about all of the people who worked my entire career with. It was sort of an accumulation of so much hard work, from so many people. I can't take single credit for it. Family, friends, coaches and so many others also deserve credit."

Fonua said his heart nearly stopped when he first learned he was going to be carrying the flag. He immediately called his parents to tell them, but they were airborne, en route to London. So he sent them an email and also sent them a text with the news.

Then he informed the world via social media (Facebook and Twitter).

Fonua, who swam the 100-meter breast stroke, was one of three Tongan participants (two men, one woman) in the 2012 Summer Olympics, which included a shot putter and sprinter.

"I did all right, not as well as I had hoped," Fonua said. "My goal was top 40, and I finished 41st. Still, it was so much fun, and I definitely would do it all over again.

"I look back on my career and reflect on the whole thing, the wide picture, including the Olympics, and I'm satisfied."

More Amini Fonua facts:

—Being a role-model: "I really want to be a role-model, especially for the [Tongan] community because water safety still is something that we still struggle with every single day, and I'm very passionate about it."

—In his limited free time, he enjoys watching movies, hanging out with friends, and karaoke. He recently went to a Cher concert and attended the New York City Pride Parade.

—He is single, "pretty happily single," he added.

—On Chicago: "I want to get to a Cubs game," he said. "And I'm so happy the Blackhawks won [the Stanley Cup.] I am a Blackhawks fan, regardless of who the other team [on the ice] is."


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