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Rosie Cossar, 2012 Olympic gymnast, on being gay and changing the sports world

Rosie Cossar heard homophobic language from coaches and judges, but felt her role representing Canada in the Olympics meant she had to come out as gay.

Olympic gymnast Rosie Cossar is coming out with pride.
Olympic gymnast Rosie Cossar is coming out with pride.
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The Canadian Olympic Committee will reveal a new LGBT initiative Tuesday. Dec. 2, 2014.

The epitome of sports masculinity for male athletes is football. No sport embodies the traditional roles of men more than America's most popular sport.

Conversely, no sport embodies stereotypical femininity of women like rhythmic gymnastics. Girls in the sport are supposed to put on pretty make-up, tie their hair with a bow, wear lovely dresses and like boys.

Rosie Cossar never quite fit that role. Even while she was captaining the Canadian rhythmic gymnastics team for four years, including the 2012 Summer Olympics, Cossar was coming out of her shell and coming out of the closet, slowly sharing with her closest friends and family that she is gay.

At the same time, she was expressing herself without words. Long pushed into those pretty dresses, Cossar was donning jeans and shirts at official gymnastics functions even as she was quietly seeking her own truth.

"I never dressed 'butch,' but people noticed," Cossar told Outsports. "My coach would ask me why I wasn't wearing a dress. She seemed disappointed. My other teammates would get excited about getting dolled up and I just didn't care."

That coach was Svetlana Joukova, the longtime rhythmic gymnastics coach who has found success in Canada: She's the first coach to successfully qualify a Canadian rhythmic gymnastics team for the Olympics. She is currently the president and head coach of the National Rhythmic Gymnastics Center.

For years Cossar had heard homophobic language from coaches and judges in the sport. Dominated by Eastern European teams and culture, rhythmic gymnastics is rife with misunderstanding about LGBT issues and athletes. It's understandable why that would keep Cossar closeted for so long.

For athletes in timed or measured sports, coming out has little bearing on your evaluation. If you can run the 100-meter in 9.95 seconds, you can run it in 9.95 seconds. You either qualify for the Olympic Games, or you do not. Team-sport athletes have it a little tougher. For most it's clear whether they can shoot the basketball or not, catch the football or not. Other objective measurable statistics like vertical leap and sprints are certainly used.

In subjective sports like diving and gymnastics, if judges don't like you you get worse marks, according to Cossar.

"I really didn't want to tell anyone from the gymnastics world because I was worried it would affect my position on the team. My sport is very subjective."

With that in mind, she came to a crossroads leading up to the 2012 Olympic Games. She feared not just being demoted on the team but losing her friends. These were women she lived with and worked with seven days a week. If they rejected her, it might be more than she could handle.

She was also traveling the world representing her country, but at the same time she felt like a fraud. She knew she was putting on an act, failing to be true to herself. Canada, she decided, deserved better.

"What's the point of representing your country if you can't represent yourself in a true way? I felt guilty for not representing myself as a person for who I truly was. I felt I wasn't doing myself any good, hiding my true self."

Rosie Cossar Canada

One by one she began sharing her secret about four years ago, first with the young women she felt would be most supportive then branching out. Her fears about the teammates rejecting her or losing her spot on the team didn't materialize.

Yet her coach, older and from Eastern Europe, expressed confusion.

"She would make comments about gay people. She was very convinced it was a choice they made. She would say it's a curse and you can't live a normal life."

Despite the hostility from her coach, Cossar's stature with the team wasn't affected. She was the captain at the 2012 Olympics on the team that finished 11th overall, beating the country of her birth and Olympic host Great Britain.

Yet the one thing she was missing from London (other than a medal) was another lesbian rhythmic gymnast to relate to. Cossar said she was looking, but she never found another young woman like her in her sport. She said it's possible there isn't another who's out to even teammates and friends.

"At the time, gymnastics was my whole life. I was usually surrounded by the same people int he gymnastics world. It would have been nice to have someone whom I could related to in my sport."

Her world has shifted since retiring after the Olympics. Cossar has made it her mission to improve the environment in sports for LGBT people. Shortly after retirement at the ripe old age of 21, she headed to The 519, the LGBT community center in Toronto, to work more with the community she had quietly been a part of for so many years. Since then she's joined efforts with the PanAm Games and Pride House Toronto to ensure inclusion when Toronto hosts the Games next year. She is also partnering with the Canadian Olympic Committee in their LGBT inclusion initiatives.

"It's a huge passion of mine now because I know it can be really difficult and really confusing for people who don't know what resources are out there, or if you think you're the only one in your sport. You feel really alone.

"I would love to provide a space in sport for people who want to be themselves. I want to make a difference."

The Canadian Olympic Committee will reveal a new LGBT initiative Tuesday. Dec. 2, 2014. You can find Rosie Cossar on Twitter @RozaPoza.