When I was five years old, I followed in the footsteps of my older sister, Rachel, and began rhythmic gymnastics lessons.
For context, Rachel was the ideal rhythmic gymnast: artistic, poised, expressive and, for lack of a better term, girly. And then there was me, a mega tomboy, with an aptitude for being messy and getting into trouble, topped off with boundless energy! Lots of work for my parents, who already had three daughters, with one more on the way.
Despite not being born a natural rhythmic gymnast, I was a born athlete. For the first several years of my career in rhythmic gymnastics, I had a love-hate relationship with the sport. I got to play around with the various apparatus and learn incredible skills with them. I excelled at that. But I was also meant to perform my routines with dance moves and frills that I felt just didn’t suit my style. It was hard for me to identify with the choreography, as it all fit into a hyper-feminine style, which I just couldn’t seem to embody without appearing forced.
I continued to try and find my way in the sport, and was very quickly developing a name as a young athlete with special skills and potential. By the time I was 15 years old, I had traveled the world and lived in Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Germany, Belgium, Japan...lots of places. I had also lived away from home for three years while I trained with one of the fiercest coaches of my career. Despite the hardships associated with this lifestyle, I found myself appreciating the opportunity to actually live in such diverse parts of the world.
Most gymnasts are in the sport from a very young age. It essentially becomes a prominent part of our identity and sense of self. This became a problem when I started to realize that much of my identity did not align with what the gymnastics world expected of me. I was gay. This realization was the beginning of a very lonely path. I tried to navigate my sexual identity in a world that was defined by heteronormativity and the ideal of the perfect woman, who, of course, could not be a lesbian.
I remember putting a lot of thought into the way I was feeling, and being terrified of what was going on in my head. I used to think back on my life and wonder what I had done to deserve this punishment. The thought of being a lesbian scared me, and I just couldn’t understand how I was going to have a normal life.
I knew I had to face reality and start coming out to the people in my life. It was the only way for me to feel less isolated. I started coming out to my family. This was not without challenges, but, over time, my entire family became supportive and proud of me for having the courage to be exactly who I was.
The biggest challenge for me was coming out to my community in gymnastics which at the time, was my whole world. I wanted to delay telling my teammates for as long as possible for fear of being kicked off the team. It was only when our team trained for qualification to the 2012 Olympic Games that I had a chance to look at the future and realize I could not proceed without taking off my mask. I couldn’t imagine competing at the Olympic Games and not representing my authentic self.
I started coming out to my teammates and coaches, one by one. I can’t say everyone was able to accept my sexual orientation, but that didn’t even matter to me anymore. I started to feel an overwhelming sense of freedom and confidence that I had never felt before. Being able to finally express my true self was very evident in my performances on the carpet. All of a sudden, I was the most expressive and most captivating performer in the gym. I could feel my entire being radiating as I moved through my routine, my whole self shining through for the first time in my entire career. The gymnastics community was in awe, and so was I! From there onwards, I lead my team to the first-ever Olympic berth for a Canadian rhythmic gymnastics group. But the best part about competing at the Games is that I was my true self on the carpet. This will forever be the greatest accomplishment of my life.
Advocating for change
When I retired from competition, I knew that I needed to do something about the way sport treats LGBTQ+ athletes. I had just spent the last ten years of my career trying, and almost failing, to navigate my place as a queer woman in sport. I started putting myself out there, sharing my story with whoever would listen. I made myself vulnerable so people could understand what the struggle can be like for athletes. I started volunteering to speak to organizations about LGBTQ+ inclusion in sport and, gradually, people would ask for me by name.
I got a chance to meet with the Canadian Olympic Committee, to discuss what they could do to help Canadian athletes in this space. This is where my advocacy really took off. In 2014, I joined forces with the COC and about a dozen other Team Canada athletes to create a program that would support LGBTQ+ athletes in a way that no other National Olympic Committee had ever done. The day we officially launched #OneTeam/#UneEquipe was a very special one for me. It was a dream come true.
#OneTeam is now a force of 75 incredibly passionate and inspiring athlete ambassadors. I have grown such close connections with these athletes that I now consider them all a part of my family. Over the past four years, the COC has been a phenomenal ally for LGBTQ+ athletes. I never imagined that my two passions, sport and LGBTQ+ rights, would ever come together in the way they have over the past few years.
This summer, at the Toronto and Montreal Pride Parades, I continue showing my pride for my community, my Olympic Committee, and my dearest #OneTeam ambassadors who march by my side. Most of all, I march with pride for my younger self who was able to get through those difficult years so today I can live a life that I love.
(Top and botton largo photos submitted by Rosie Cossar; middle large image from the Canadian Olympic Committee)