clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Olympic rower Robbie Manson comes out as gay

New, 5 comments

Robbie Manson, Olympic rower for New Zealand, comes out publicly as gay, talks about the struggles in the closet and coming out to friends before the 2012 Olympics.

Anthony Au-Yeung

Two and a half years ago I made the scariest decision of my life: to come out.

I feel like there has always been a confident, outgoing side of me dying to come out. But from an early age I realized that I was different from most other guys. I desperately tried to hide that "different" side of myself. In doing so I inadvertently became very quiet and shy, shutting myself off and avoiding attention for fear that someone might discover my deepest, darkest secret: I'm gay.

When I was younger I might have gotten the odd "you're gay" or "are you gay?" comment, which to a degree made me shut myself off even more. But they were few and far between. I was far from flamboyant so found it quite easy to hide who I really was. Don't get me wrong, at home I was happy, confident, bossy...and very competitive.

But at school I was the complete opposite, even getting hassled a bit for being too quiet and not talking very much.

I started rowing when I was 16, further helping me hide who I really was. Who's going to suspect that I'm gay if I'm a rower, right? Although that wasn't the main reason for taking up an oar, or in my case a set of sculls.

My younger brother, Karl, had just started rowing, Mum was coaching him and my competitive nature took over: I didn't want him getting fitter or stronger than I was! Today we're still in the same squad in the New Zealand team, so we have that fierce competition between us on a daily basis, trying to get one up on each other. We've rowed together twice internationally, in 2010 at under-23 level and in 2014 at elite level, both times in the double. And we are the current New Zealand champions together in the double and the quad. So rowing is a bit of a family affair in our household.

Robbie Karl Manson

Robbie and Karl Manson from Central RPC win the premier mens double sculls during the Bankstream New Zealand Rowing Championships at Lake Karapiro on February 21, 2014 in Cambridge, New Zealand. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

Although it hasn't always been in the forefront of my mind, deep down I was terrified of anyone finding out that I was gay, especially my teammates. I seriously thought that if anyone found out I wouldn't be able to row anymore. The thought of coming out, in my mind, felt so limiting and terrifying.

Also, in a strange way, I looked down on other people who were gay, and to a degree felt sorry for them, thinking to be gay was to be "less than." I knew I was gay too, and I hated myself because of it. I would get quite depressed about.

I thought that I would be inadequate if I was gay, that people would treat me differently. If anyone mentioned anything or anyone "gay," I would feel desperately uncomfortable, like I had to escape to avoid them seeing that I was bright red. I was so scared. I felt like I would implode.

The worst part of the whole situation: It was all in my head.

When I was 19 I knew I was attracted to guys, but I still didn't want to admit it to myself. I thought that I could just deny those feelings and be straight.

It was then that my older brother came out to me.

I was initially shocked. But then I sat back and realized that there had been little clues all along - I had just been blindly caught up in my own struggle. But I was in no way ready to admit that I was gay to myself let alone come out to anyone else.

It took me until I was 21 to come out to my older brother and to myself. About 10 months later I decided to take the next step and told Mum - over Christmas break. When she picked me up from the airport I played a guessing game with her. IT took her a few tries, but she ultimately said that she thought I was probably going to come out to her but didn't want to say it in case she was wrong. I thought Mum was never going to have a problem with it, but knowing that she knew made me feel a lot better.

Further motivation was that I also had my eye on someone - someone I really liked. It took me a couple months before I actually plucked up the courage to ask him if he wanted to go out on a date. At this point I was still not out to anyone other than Mum and my brother. But for the first time the excitement of wanting to go out with another guy outweighed the fear of coming out, and I was willing to take the risk.

When we went out on our first date I was so nervous I was practically shaking. We went out in Hamilton - rather than Cambridge where I live - because I was too scared that someone would see us. But I can't have been that bad as we went out again and eventually I became a bit more relaxed about the situation. We ended up being together for a while. In the end it didn't work out, but I was so grateful for that relationship as it gave me the push I needed.

It was the night after being named to the NZ rowing team for the London Olympics that I came out to more people. I was ecstatic to be selected in the quad. Going to the Olympics was a dream of mine ever since watching the Sydney Games when I was 10 years old. We were having a few drinks and near the end of the night I had a heart-to-heart with two of my friends. In a very emotional state I told them that I was different, and then finally that I was gay.

Slowly I told more friends over the next few months, and by the end of the Olympics everyone knew, including the rest of my crew. I'm sure word spread a lot faster than I told people, and for a while it was a bit of a guessing game of who knows and who doesn't.

Much to my surprise, everyone was fine with it. I didn't have a single bad reaction, and most people were demonstrably supportive.

I felt like I could finally find out who I really was. I've developed more confidence to just be me. I found that not only could I handle the odd joke, but I can also laugh along, which I think is always the best way to handle the situation, as long as it's meant well.

I feel like my perspective has changed so much and now I'm not only proud to be gay, but I'm glad that I am. I wouldn't want to be any other way. I think it makes me more interesting, and it's something that does make me different in a good way. I learned that I'm a lot stronger and more resilient than I gave myself credit for, and that other people are far more accepting than I thought they would be.

I have learned so much about myself and what it means to be gay over the past couple of years, and also what it means to be gay in a competitive sporting environment. And it's all been hugely positive.

There are already a lot of great gay sporting role models, and a lot who have achieved far more than I have, but I hope that my story can add something to what is already out there. To show other people who might be struggling with their sexuality, not only that it's ok to be gay, but it's a good thing, and it won't change who you are or limit what you can achieve. At the end of the day, it's only one of the many things that define me as a person.

It's how hard you're prepared to work for something and your talent that determines what you can achieve, not your sexuality.

You can follow Robbie Manson on Twitter @Rob_rower. Editor: Cyd Zeigler

Robbie Manson's career highlights:

2009: Under 23 World Champion (Double Scull)
2009: Halberg Awards - Emerging talent Finalist
2010-Current: Member of the NZ Elite rowing team
2012: London Olympics 7th place (Quad Scull)
2013: Winner of 3 World Cup Regattas in the (Double Scull)
2013: Marlborough Sportsman of the Year

3xNZ Champion in the Double 2012/2013/2014
3xNZ Champion in the Quad 2011/2012/2014
2xNZ Under 21 Champion Single Scull 2009/2010

Robbie Manson

New Zealand rower Robbie Manson poses during a New Zealand rowing portrait session at Lake Karipiro on May 31, 2013 in Cambridge, New Zealand. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)