By Ty Nolan
Originally published in our October 2013 edition of Compete Magazine
Blake Skjellerup is well known in his native New Zealand for his accomplishments as a short track speed skater. He gained additional international recognition in 2010 with his participation in the XXI Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver, British Columbia … and by coming out as one of the few openly gay Olympians. He and fellow gay Olympian Aussie Matthew Mitcham are also serving as official Ambassadors for Gay Games 9, being held in Cleveland, Ohio in August 2014.
Named as one of The Advocate Magazine’s “40 Under 40,” Skjellerup has joined an elite group of LGBT individuals under the age of forty who the magazine believes are making a significant contribution to the rest of the world. He has certainly faced homophobia in his past. But in his Advocate interview he laughingly shared that once he came out, “They make more of an effort to treat me as the equal – but more fabulous – human that I am.”
Skjellerup was active in rugby until an accident at age ten led him to ice skating. And it was in skating that he discovered his true potential to be a world-class performer. Deciding to come out so he could be a role model for other LGBT athletes, he says “I do not think anyone should have to hide who they are because of fear or persecution … I had no doubt that my coming out would be a positive experience and I wanted to share that with other LGBT athletes around the world.”
With a strong interest in supporting youth, Skjellerup got involved with New Zealand-based Queer-Straight Alliance (QSA) in their national effort to end bullying. Starring in a QSA video, he told his Kiwi neighbors, “I want every difference to be celebrated, not challenged. I want the youth of the world to know that whatever they are feeling, whatever they are thinking, that it is completely natural. I do not want anyone to be persecuted for being themselves.”
He continued to say that “I got involved in a nationwide campaign here in New Zealand to combat this. Pink Shirt Day is a campaign to eliminate bullying in our schools. Gay, straight, African, Asian … anyone who believes that bullying has no place in schools, … those who want to show support for those who are and have been bullied, and obviously those who are bullied, should wear a pink shirt on April 14th to unite against this.”
Currently based in Canada to train for the upcoming 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, I caught up with Skjellerup for a quick one-on-one interview.
Compete: Right before our interview was to begin, you ended up in an emergency situation. Can you tell me about your experience with the massive flood in Canada? Last time I heard from you, you were sleeping on your cousin’s sofa.
Skjellerup: ”We had a lot of rain here in Calgary and mixed with the spring thaw from the snow off the mountains, the rivers started to flood. I have cousins in Calgary and I live with them to keep costs down even though it means I have to commute an hour and a half on the train each day to training. It was a Thursday night and we heard they were evacuating areas further up the river. We went off to sleep and come midnight we had a knock on the door by police who told us we needed to evacuate. So we packed a few things and headed for another family member’s house who lived in a dry area. Luckily we avoided any flooding but we were without power for two days. I only had to endure one night on a couch, thankfully.”
Compete: Given the fact that you’re a proud Kiwi, is it a standard thing for you to train in Canada? Do most New Zealanders end up training in Calgary or only those who participate in the Winter Olympics?
Skjellerup: “I train here in Calgary for a number of reasons. I am the only athlete of my level from New Zealand. However, we have a lot of up and coming skaters who will one day be at my level. To be competitive I need to train alongside other comparable skaters. In New Zealand, unfortunately we do not have the resources or facilities for speed skating to allow me to train at the highest Olympic level. It is not uncommon for athletes to travel and train in foreign places. New Zealand is a small, proud nation but minority sports lack the expertise and funding to build strong programs on home soil. Most nations close themselves off to foreigners joining their training programs. But luckily for me, Calgary is established as an international training center that allows athletes from all over the world to train together as a joint team.”
Compete: Many of us are worried about the current intense homophobic legislation that’s happening in Russia, even to the point some groups are urging a boycott as a protest. As one of the few openly gay Olympians, what are your feelings about going to a homophobic environment to compete? Do you have plans to alter your behavior? Have you heard of any comments on how restrictive the Olympic Village in Russia might be?
Skjellerup: “It is incredibly sad the policies that are being passed by the Russian Government recently. It is mind boggling to try and understand why Russia is going the opposite direction from the rest of the world in terms of LGBT human rights. I have no plans to alter my behavior in any way. I am who I am and no matter where [I am] in the world, I will always be proud of who I am.
I do not have any concerns for my safety. The Olympic Village is a bubble. And contrary to every one’s belief, it is not a big party zone! Everyone there is focused on competing and doing their best. I do not believe the Village in Russia will be any different to Olympic Games in the past. The Olympic Games are an apolitical movement. However, the idea of the Olympic Games is to celebrate humanity, and humanity includes all creeds, colors and sexual orientations. I hope my presence in Russia will be a positive one and that my athletic endeavors bring some positive attention to what it means to be not only an athlete but an athlete who is a proud member of the LGBT community.”
Compete: Some of our readers may not realize that for some Olympians, your dedication doesn’t only involve years of intense training and competition. On some levels it is also a real business enterprise with major expenses if you aren’t supported by your government or a major corporation. For example, in 2012 Ryan Lochte’s parents had their home foreclosed because they were devoting their financial resources to support him. And before Gabby Douglas appeared on the Wheaties cereal box, her mother had declared bankruptcy to pay for her daughter’s training. Olympic speed skater Eric Flaim stated that training, including travel, practice facilities, living expenses and coaching can run $100,000 a year or more. Can you share your experience?
Skjellerup: “I have always struggled with sponsorship and gaining the support I need to train and compete to the highest level. I do everything I believe possible to stand out and to try to appeal to a corporate market. I have no issue with my body, I am proud of it and I work very hard to be the best I can be at my sport. In seven months time I want to know that I have done everything possible to get every last second and every last bit of strength and determination out of myself once the starting gun fires for my first race in Sochi. I do not want to have any regrets or to wonder what if!”
Compete: Finally, is there anything you’d like Compete readers know about the “real” Blake Skjellerup?
Skjellerup: “The real Blake is someone who works very hard at what he does, day in and day out! My sport has been my savior in my life. It helped me in times where I thought I had no one else. It gave me the courage and motivation to make something of my life and to be somebody. It has been very much a lone game, and at times it is disheartening to not have the support I need. However, the fact that I have done a lot of this all by myself will just make what I achieve all that more gratifying. I hope people, especially those who are in a similar position as I was, to keep on going, to never give up, to always stay true to themselves – to hold onto their beliefs.”
We all wish Blake Skjellerup the highest level of success and accomplishment. He appears to be following in the footsteps of our friend and sports equality partner, Ben Cohen—both in terms of recognition in his chosen sport as well as being an advocate for the LGBT community and speaking out against bullying and homophobia. If you’d like to help support his training, a New Zealand non-profit organization has set up a fund-raiser account for him as their nation’s only openly gay Olympian: https://www.givealittle.co.nz/cause/BlakeSkjellerupforGold
You can also follow him on his Facebook page or his twitter account: Twitter.com/BlakeSkjellerup.