A legacy lives on in this marvelous makeover of Michael Gunning, which he’s dropped on socials just in time for Halloween.
Gunning, who swam for Great Britain and Jamaica before retiring from international competition last year, enlisted the help of body paint cosplayer Rainbowskinz to pull off a stunning transformation into Black Panther.
The Marvel superhero is Gunning’s all-time favorite movie character, and he timed the tribute to coincide with the conclusion of the UK’s Black History Month, which is held every October.
“I wanted to do something special for Halloween this year, and after I met Chris [Rainbowskinz] at an event, we got talking,” Gunning tells Outsports.
“He usually paints himself, not other people, but he said that he loved my story of positively representing my communities in sport. Chris is gay too and has done several amazing Pride-themed looks.
“It’s been over five years since the first Black Panther film came out, and three since Chadwick Boseman sadly passed away. Both the movie and Chadwick’s courage have inspired me so this felt like a good choice for cosplay — and I’ve had a great response to it!”
Another anniversary has been on Gunning’s mind of late. He posted to Instagram at the weekend to reflect on coming out publicly in October 2018 via a reality TV dating show. He was still competing at the elite level back then, having set three national records for Jamaica that still stand today.
It was understandably a nervous time, not least because he didn’t know what the reaction would be from his federation and the media, in a country where same-sex sexual activity between men is still criminalized by law.
He did go on to receive a few hurtful messages from Jamaicans but as he wrote in his Insta post, he has absolutely no regrets.
“Looking back, it was such a good experience overall and the best way I could have done it,” he says. “I was so worried and anxious. But on the show, I could just be myself and explore feelings that I’d never explored before.”
‘The Bi Life’ was set in a villa in Barcelona and threw together nine British 20-somethings who either knew they were bisexual or who were questioning their sexuality. Gunning had been so cocooned within the swimming world that he’d never even been on a date before. A few episodes into the series, he was telling his fellow housemates that he is gay.
“It might seem strange but it was a more natural way to come out, rather than having to sit down everyone I knew to tell them individually,” he says.
“The show had already been recorded earlier that summer. It turned out to be my perfect coming-out scenario. Now I’m learning more about myself every year and without the LGBTQ community, I wouldn’t be where I am today. The show changed my life.”
In 2019, Gunning competed in his second World Aquatics Championships and had set his sights on the Tokyo Olympics, but the coronavirus pandemic ultimately derailed his ambitions.
At the same time, his advocacy work was taking off, and he became a patron for the Kaleidoscope Trust — a non-profit organization that campaigns for LGBTQ human rights worldwide. He also works with UK charities Stonewall and Diversity Role Models.
However, his passion for swimming and sport continues, even though he is no longer in the pool every day. Earlier this year, he became the British Elite Athletes Association’s first Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Ambassador and alongside wheelchair basketball player Robyn Love — who is the BEAA’s LGBTQ+ Ambassador — he is there to help anyone on a performance pathway who might need relevant advice.
“The pressure that athletes put on themselves means they’re always trying to anticipate what’s coming,” he says.
“We love that feeling of control and we love to prepare for every situation. But with coming out, you can’t guess how people are going to react and you end up overthinking everything. I had that feeling myself.
“And in this BEAA role, I’m seeing a lot of that again. Even though I’ve had positive experiences of coming out and 99% of the people who have done it that I’ve spoken to say the same, it’s still those unknown variables that tend to put people off.”
It’s why, in this instance, taking yourself outside of the sports bubble and going on a reality TV show might make sense for those grappling with something so personal. While that’s not a realistic scenario for those with Olympic dreams, getting good advice from an athlete who’s been there before is probably the next best thing.
One fellow swimmer who reached out and got “fantastic help” from Gunning was Dan Jervis, who shared his story of being gay for the first time with the BBC LGBT Sport Podcast at the end of Pride Month last year.
“When Dan and I first spoke about him coming out, he felt ready in himself but he didn’t want the media attention that would come with it — so I had to advise him that he wasn’t really ready,” explains Gunning.
“When something’s not spoken about enough, you’re going to become a role model for so many people just by saying that’s who you are. So we kept speaking as friends, with me helping him to understand it all and let him just sound things out.
“It’s a process that so many athletes must go through. Even though I came out on a TV show and it all looks very decisive in the edit, it had been going around in my head for years.
“I didn’t make the Commonwealth Games that year and I had a summer of opportunity to acknowledge that the one thing that was missing from my life and that I wasn’t happy in was my sexuality. I needed to own it for myself, both inside and outside of my sport.
“I think everyone gets to that point and with Dan, after a little while, he was ready and he’s now really embraced it. Some athletes will get there earlier but whatever time is right for them, it’s whether they’ve got that support network that can help to pull them through.”
The competition schedule is often another complicating factor. There were times during his career when Gunning felt uncomfortable and would change his behavior depending on where swim meets were taking place, particularly in countries with anti-LGBTQ laws or where homophobic attitudes were known to be common.
“At the time I wasn’t out, but if I was, I can’t imagine how I would have approached those competitions,” he says.
“When you’re in villages, it’s really safe and you’re well looked after but it would still play on your mind. You’re under so much pressure that you’ve got to get your head down and perform, but other things in your life can affect you.”
With the next World Aquatics Championships being held in Qatar in February, swimmers and divers who are LGBTQ and who are considering coming out publicly will be thinking about the timing. As we saw with the men’s World Cup in 2022, human rights in the Gulf are a major talking point — and it’s always the few out athletes or strong allies who get asked to speak on behalf of LGBTQ people.
This week it was announced that Pride House aims to be present at the upcoming FIFA World Cup! ️ ⚽️ I can’t tell you how PROUD I was being part of Birmingham’s 2022 Pride House & creating history by having representation present in the athletes villages for the first time ever! pic.twitter.com/PrM2cReNwb— Michael Gunning (@MichaelGunning1) October 21, 2023
It’s a challenging topic but one which Gunning is happy to discuss with other athletes. He also wants to go deeper into positive mental health and wellbeing in a new project he’ll be undertaking with the British broadcaster Sky Sports, having been selected as one of the content-creator beneficiaries of its ‘New Focus Fund’.
He’s aiming to focus on the aspects of sports stars’ personalities that fans don’t get to see so often. “I’ll be doing the interviews as well as producing. It’ll be weird to be on the other side of it!” he says.
Gunning is no stranger to the red carpet though, and since stepping away from swimming, he has been building up his confidence by taking on some bolder looks. For most gay men, but especially those in the public eye, body image is increasingly commented upon and these days, Halloween pictures are scrutinized almost as much as summer snaps from the beach.
The 29-year-old is clearly in great shape but having the mindset of a professional athlete means he inevitably holds himself to a high standard.
“Since retiring, I’m a little bit insecure about my body because I’m not as super ripped as I was.
“But I’m learning to embrace it. I’ve joined a gym — I’ll never be swimming 25 hours a week in the pool again. I was in such a unique bubble that I’m learning again now how to best look after myself.
“It’s nice when people say I’ve still got a great body but because I know what I once was, it’s hard to keep that expectation. But at every event I go to now, I just try to be totally authentic in terms of bringing my personality and what I wear.
“That inspired me for the Black Panther cosplay as well. And I had abs painted on me, which was great!”
You’ll never find Gunning taking himself too seriously but as a relatable role model for other gay athletes, he has a special kind of superpower — and he’s only just getting started.