I talk openly with my teammates about hot guys. I am my team's designated gaydar expert, even though it's no better, and possibly worse, than any of theirs. I'm able to joke about being gay and laugh at myself.
This is me in 2016 — an elite Olympic rower getting ready to compete in Rio for Team New Zealand as an openly gay man. Four years ago, as I got ready for the London Olympics, the thought of doing any of this would have terrified me.
I have enjoyed the past four years more than the previous four and I think that has a lot to do with just being myself. Being gay is no longer something I think about all the time. It just feels normal and I feel like I fit in far better being myself than I ever did trying to be something that I'm not. I used to want to crawl under a rock and hide if anything gay came up in conversation, in fear that someone might notice my face turning bright red and see how uncomfortable I was. Now on the other hand I happily and confidently answer questions teammates might have about anything gay.
I first came out four years ago to some people around this time in the build-up to the London Olympics. Since then, and also since publicly coming out via Outsports at the end of 2014, the response has been 99.9% positive. It was a far better response than I ever could have expected. I have now done one Olympic cycle almost fully in the closet and I'm now coming to the business end of my second fully out. I feel as though I've learned a lot and continued to grow as a rower and as a person because of my decision to come out.
My international career started in 2009 when I won the double sculls with Joseph Sullivan at the under 23 world championships. In 2010 I raced the under 23 double again, this time with my younger brother Karl, before moving up to the elite level in the quad for the World Champs at home in New Zealand later that year. In 2011 my teammates and I qualified for the London Olympics.
At that time, I was relatively young, inexperienced and grateful just to have a shot at the Olympics. I'm a generally quiet person but I think that this was magnified further by the feeling of not being fully myself and also the fear of other people finding out that I was gay. Nonetheless I got on with the job and relished the opportunity to achieve a childhood dream. The London Olympics was a great experience although I wanted to and believed I could achieve more in the sport.
I started this Olympic cycle on a high. At the beginning of 2013 I formed a doubles team with Michael Arms, with whom I raced the quad with at the Olympics the year before. It worked well from the start and we won all three world cups along with winning the double at the prestigious Henley Royal Regatta. We were unbeaten and could do no wrong. This all came undone when we returned to New Zealand to prepare for the world champs. Michael sustained a back injury and despite still managing to finish sixth at the world championships, we never quite rediscovered the form that won us three World Cups earlier in the year.
This was the start of a difficult couple of years. Michael's ongoing struggle with injury put him out for 2014 and eventually forced his early retirement. This gave me the opportunity to once again row with Karl for the second time internationally. We had a promising start, finishing fourth at our first World Cup together, but we struggled to keep up with the increasingly more competitive men's double field and slipped back to sixth at the following World Cup and eight at the world championships.
In 2015, I got yet another doubles partner in Chris Harris. This combination clicked right away, but it almost came undone before it started. This time I suffered a back injury which put me out of the boat for six weeks. I missed one World Cup and when I was finally in the boat for the final World Cup event we finished sixth. It wasn't the international debut we were looking for and meant we had very little international racing experience together going into the 2015 World Championships.
The World Championships in a pre-Olympic year double as the main Olympic qualification regatta and we needed a Top 11 finish to secure New Zealand a place at Rio. We started the regatta well and progressed to the semifinal. A Top 3 finish in the semifinals would book us place in the "A" Final and guarantee Olympic qualification.
We had a fast start and were in second for most of the race. In the final 500 meters of the 2,000-meter race, Australia and Italy closed in, while Croatia was clearly in first. We were in a three-way race for the all-important second and third place. This was reminiscent of the year before where Karl and I were in the same situation with Italy and Australia and just missed out on the A Final. I wasn't about to let the same thing happen again.
It came down to a photo finish but we clinched that third qualifying spot, along with a place in the final and a ticket to Rio. From the rocky season we had been through, this alone was a great achievement, but we weren't done yet. After two years of not having won an international medal and having never won a medal at the World Championships we broke the drought. We didn't have the fastest start but put together a really strong second 1,000 meters to sneak past the Germans into third place behind Croatia and Lithuania. To me, winning a bronze medal and getting on the podium felt like we'd won.
The 2016 season has mostly gone to plan. We came second at the Lucerne World Cup to the hot favorites for Rio, Croatia, who haven't been beaten in the men's double since switching from the quad in 2014. And we won the Poznan World Cup three weeks later, although Croatia and a number of other top crews were absent.
Coming into Rio — our first qualifying heat is this Saturday, Aug. 6 — the field is extremely tight. Eleven of the countries that will compete in Rio have medaled in the men's double at either World Cups or Worlds Championships in the past three years. We have been on form so far this season, but if I have learned anything from the past four years is that previous form means nothing. You have to do everything you can in training and, most importantly, execute a perfect race on the day.
I have had a lot of ups and downs over the past four years but I know that I'm in a far stronger position going into Rio than I was going into London. I know that when Chris and I sit on the start line in the double in Rio I will be full of nerves, but at the same time I'm also experienced enough to know that nerves are an important part of performing well. We have done the work and now we have to put it all together when it counts.
And I will perform on the world stage as an athlete who is openly gay. One of the best things about coming out publicly have been the messages and stories I have received from people who are going through or have gone through a similar thing and have said that my story has helped them in some way. That has made it worth sharing my story, even if it's only in a small way. For me the main thing is to be the best that I can be on and off the water and enjoy this opportunity I've been given to be an elite athlete and compete on the world stage.
Robbie Manson, 26, is a rower for Team New Zealand and will race in the men's double at the Rio Olympics with teammate Chris Harris. You can follow Robbie on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and Snapchat (robbie_manson).
You can watch Robbie Manson and Chris Harris compete in Rio during the men's qualifying heats, which will air live on NBC in the U.S. on Saturday, Aug. 6, starting at 8 a.m. EDT. Here is the double sculls schedule.
Story edited by Jim Buzinski