In a competitive, soccer-dominated category that featured Megan Rapinoe, Quinn and Women’s World Cup finalists England, it was para-athlete Lauren Rowles who was the people’s pick at the PinkNews Awards.
Rowles was selected as the Sports Personality of the Year on a public vote just a month after winning her second World Championships title.
That triumph, earned alongside mixed doubles sculls partner Gregg Stevenson, secured ParalympicsGB a quota spot for the discipline at Paris 2024 where Rowles will bid to become the first British rower to win three Paralympic gold medals.
She was being recognized Wednesday at the 10th-anniversary edition of the awards event, which celebrates LGBTQ role models and the community’s progress in fields such as business, fashion, broadcasting and entertainment.
Rowles attended the ceremony in London with her fiancee and fellow Paralympian Jude Hamer, and after expressing surprise at her success, she labelled it “a collective effort” as she acknowledged her fellow nominees.
Alongside Rapinoe, Quinn and the Lionesses, former England defender turned broadcaster Alex Scott and out gay men’s player Jake Daniels were also nominated, while away from football, the category — sponsored by Sky Sports — was completed by two-time Olympic gold medal-winning middle-distance athlete Dame Kelly Holmes, former swimmer Michael Gunning, and cyclist Emily Bridges who was last year’s winner.
In her acceptance speech, Rowles addressed the ongoing challenges faced by so many LGBTQ athletes who are anxious at the thought of coming out.
“The LGBTQ voices that are in sport are not enough,” she said. “There’s not enough of us that are out, because we’re scared of representing who we are in sport.
“I don’t think there’s enough attention about that. I don’t think people really understand the landscape of sport, and just how fearful it can be.”
We’re at the #PinkNewsAwards where two-time world champion (and two-time Paralympic champion!) @itslaurenrowles has just picked up the Sports Personality of the Year gong! And gave an amazing speech too. Huge congrats Lauren pic.twitter.com/hjFa0IEUmh— Sports Media LGBT+ (@SportsMediaLGBT) October 18, 2023
It was back in 2020 when Rowles and Hamer first spoke publicly about their relationship.
Since then, they have become strong advocates for the community, serving as ambassadors for Pride House Birmingham at last year’s Commonwealth Games and sharing their story more widely, such as in a short film for ParalympicsGB that was produced for Pride Month earlier this year, also starring their adorable French bulldog, Dora.
Rowles has also used her platform to raise awareness of the impact of depression, courageously discussing the experience of her post-Tokyo 2020 “spiral” in which she struggled to find her sense of purpose and was also laid low by Covid.
There are aspects of her athlete journey which will resonate with different people — for example, she was told in 2022 that she has ADHD, a diagnosis which she says has given her greater clarity of mind — and in her speech, the 25-year-old said she was inspired by one of the night’s earlier award winners.
The Good News category gong had been taken by TRUK United FC following the global interest in the club’s transmasculine team, which made football history on Trans Day of Visibility in March.
Their friendly match at Dulwich Hamlet, watched by over 500 people, represented the first time that a full 11-a-side team consisting solely of trans men had taken to the field.
Again, a public vote determined the winner, and the team’s manager Lucy Clark accepted the award on stage alongside team captain Arthur Webber and other TRUK United players, with Webber describing how he was shut out of playing football as a teenager due to his gender identity and that his intention was to give hope to trans kids everywhere.
Biggest cheer of the night at the #PinkNewsAwards, and rightly so, went to the amazing @Trukunitedfc - they put together the first ever all trans men football team earlier this year.— Nakul Pande (@NakulMPande) October 18, 2023
That team was captained by Arthur Webber (@BernieTranders) - his speech brought the house down. pic.twitter.com/B3BuDnWfAm
Rowles said: “We have incredible people here like the football team who tell their stories about how sport’s changed their life but also how they’ve been excluded from sport.
“I know how that feels as a person who’s not only disabled but also queer themselves.
“Sport has the power to change people’s lives and to save lives. It saved mine from being in a very dark place when I became disabled at 13 years old and it led me back to being in a place where I’m able to be who I am today.”
In 2023, the 25-year-old has reaped the rewards of an intense training regime, having also landed European gold alongside Stevenson in May.
There have been further celebrations recently too. A week after her World Rowing Championship win in Belgrade in September, Rowles and Hamer announced they are expecting their first child together, due in March.
Hamer plans to return to competitive wheelchair basketball later next year, with the Paralympics beginning five months after the due date.
Her GB team-mates include couple Robyn Love and Laurie Williams, who gave birth to baby Alba back in May; both players were part of the squad at the European Championship in August, where finishing as runners-up qualified GB for Paris 2024.
In their ParalympicsGB Pride Month film, Rowles and Hamer discuss how being part of a team sports set-up that is fully inclusive inevitably makes the coming out process kinder for LGBTQ athletes.
It was less easy for Rowles who competed individually in elite parasport as a wheelchair racer in track events before switching to rowing just a year before landing her first gold medal at Rio 2016.
Still a teenager after those Games, she was closeted herself and had seen no LGBTQ role models in rowing or wider para-sport at that time who she felt she could relate to.
To celebrate Pride in London today we popped round to @itslaurenrowles and @jude__hamer’s to talk growing up, coming out, tying the knot and being visible in sport.— ParalympicsGB (@ParalympicsGB) July 1, 2023
Full vid on ParalympicsGB YouTube now!#Pride pic.twitter.com/FBeCt4JxAx
Rowles now wants to help prevent young LGBTQ people — particularly those drawn towards sports — from experiencing the shame and confusion that affected her as an athlete on the elite pathway.
She closed her awards speech by calling for more active allyship that emphasizes the performance benefits of self-confidence and pride.
“Please help these athletes that are trying to be visible,” said Rowles.
“Get behind them, encourage sponsorships and things like that because as athletes we need it more than ever.
“We want more and more young people to be authentically themselves and be able to change their lives through sport.”