Robbie Manson said that he became a better rower after he came out publicly as gay. No longer did he have to expend mental energy making up stories or worrying that people would discover his secret. This liberation came to fruition when Manson had a record-setting 2017.

The 28-year-old who rows for New Zealand, where the sport is huge, had a banner year. He smashed a world record, was named rower of the month, and won an international male athlete of the year award. For these accomplishments, Manson is Outsports’ 2017 Male Athlete of the Year.

Manson continued to shine in December at a major regatta in New Zealand, where he bested a two-time gold medalist in the single sculls. This all happened after Manson crashed into a car while training on his bike but was able to avoid major injury.

"Luckily I didn't hit my head or break any bones as it could have been a season ending injury or worse,” Manson said.

In picking Manson as its rower of the month in September, World Rowing said: “There’s a new kid on the block in the men’s single sculls and he’s not messing around. In his first season in the single at the elite international level, New Zealander Robbie Manson has won two World Cup golds (Lucerne and Poznan) and set a World Best Time. He earned his place in the boat after New Zealand’s multiple world and Olympic Champion, Mahe Drysdale, took time out following the Rio Olympic Games.”

More importantly, Manson shows that one can be proudly out and be an elite athlete, not afraid to discuss being gay but not being defined by it. As he wrote in an essay for Outsports prior to the 2016 Summer Olympics:

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.

Manson wasn’t the only male athlete who shined in 2017. Here are our honorable mentions:

Previous winners

2016 — Boxer Orlando Cruz

2015 — Figure skater Eric Radford

2014 — Soccer player Robbie Rogers