Retired Olympic swimmer hopes her coming-out story helps normalize it for other female athletes

Over the course of her competitive swimming career, Martha McCabe feels the lack of a visible lesbian role model played a part in preventing her from recognizing her own sexuality.

Martha McCabe encountered visible LGBTQ+ swimmers in her career, but few were women

Martha McCabe speaks during a press conference at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. The retired swimmer has recently come out in hopes of inspiring other young females to feel comfortable with themselves. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Over the course of her eight years as a swimmer on Canada's national team, Martha McCabe estimates she had at least 10 teammates who identified as LGBTQ+.

She says there were probably 30 to 40 members of the community competing during her time swimming at the university level.

At her first Olympics in 2012, she marched into London's Olympic Stadium alongside Mark Tewksbury, an Olympic champion swimmer and a vocal advocate for gay rights since coming out publicly in 1998.

But what McCabe noticed was that none of the LGBTQ+ swimmers she knew was a woman. And that lack of a visible role model played a part in preventing her from recognizing her own sexuality.

"For me, swimming was the world," the 30-year-old two-time Olympian said. "Sure, I probably knew a couple of lesbians outside of swimming, but I was barely paying attention to my life outside of swimming.

"The people I looked up to were in swimming. The people I was constantly surrounded by and giving my full attention to were in swimming. I think if there was an out lesbian within that circle, someone I could have potentially looked up to, it would have been normalized a little bit more.

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"I think because there haven't really been any superstars in the sport publicly come out as lesbian and advocate for women in the LGBTQ+ space, it makes it more challenging to realize these things about yourself," she said.

McCabe is fresh off her first Pride Month as a member of the LGBTQ+ community. The world championship and Pan Am Games medallist is coming out publicly in the hopes of inspiring other young athletes and increasing LGBTQ+ representation in swimming, specifically on the women's side, where she says it is severely lacking.

"I want to be an example to young female swimmers and help ones who are struggling with this, so they can see it's normal," said McCabe, who specialized in the 200-metre breaststroke and placed fifth in the London 2012 Olympics. "Parents also need to recognize that this needs to be normalized. Kids don't see this everywhere, and when you don't see it, it becomes this hurdle you have to get over."

It wasn't a hurdle McCabe confronted during her career; it was after she hung up her swimsuit that she explored her sexuality. She says she was never attracted to women throughout her years in the pool, but admits it would have been helpful — and could have changed her trajectory — if she knew out women in swimming when she competed.

"I think because I didn't see it in people I looked up to, the thought never crossed my mind. I didn't question the norms society had built around me because I didn't even realize there was something to question," she said.

I want to be an example to young female swimmers and help ones who are struggling with this, so they can see it's normal.- Martha McCabe

Tewksbury agrees that knowing LGBTQ+ women in the sport could have benefited McCabe.

"Obviously Martha is not the first one. I even know of women who were members of the community, but very private about it," said Tewksbury, who won gold at the 1992 Olympics and was Canada's chef de mission at the London Olympics in 2012. "I'm realizing how unfortunate that is. Even some Olympic medallists, I think they could have been really good role models for Martha.

"This is so important, Martha sharing her story. I don't know how many women have ever been on the national team and have publicly identified as part of the LGBTQ+ community before. It's great; it starts a whole different level of conversation, hopefully in places across the country that need it."

Coming out to family and friends isn't a painless process for every LGBTQ+ person, but it has been for McCabe, a Canmore, Alta. resident originally from Toronto. She says she has only received love and support from those closest to her, for which she is thankful.

McCabe emphasizes the importance of coming out, especially in the sporting arena where she says it doesn't happen enough.

"Young people need to be able to see themselves in the people they look up to," she said. "We need minority voices from different races, sexualities, gender identities, etc. — people bold enough to speak out, to share and to be themselves publicly so that younger generations can see they are not alone, and that you can be successful despite your differences," she said.

Inclusivity is crucial to McCabe. It's a component of her own public speaking engagements and is championed through Head to Head, a mentorship company she founded after retiring from swimming that connects youth with Olympians. She said inclusion is a topic Olympians are encouraged to discuss, with the goal of helping young people build inclusive environments in all the spaces they occupy.

McCabe, left, celebrates her silver medal at the 2015 Pan Am Games alongside teammate and gold medallist Kierra Smith. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

McCabe urges LGBTQ+ people and allies to show their support, which can mean pasting a rainbow flag to a window or donning a rainbow sticker on a shoe. It can also entail participating in Pride, which McCabe did when she marched with the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) in Toronto's 2019 Pride parade and which she and her girlfriend celebrated online this year due to COVID-19.

"I was single for a long time, and although I never felt lonely or like I was missing anything, I'm now very grateful and happy to have a partner who I really want to spend time enjoying all of life's activities with," she said.

This year's Pride Month was a factor in McCabe's choice to come out publicly.

"Seeing more and more high-profile athletes speak about the importance of coming out publicly throughout Pride Month made me realize that even though my experience has been pretty seamless, it is not the case for many young people. These young people need role models both for themselves and for the people around them to see that if you're currently not accepting of the LGBTQ+ community, you need to further educate yourself, make sure you understand the meaning behind your words and the way you support others."

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A high-profile athlete who perhaps didn't understand the meaning behind his words this past Pride Month was Christion Jones, a former wide receiver for the Edmonton Eskimos. On June 27 — Global Pride Day — Jones tweeted his opposition to gay and lesbian relationships. Further, he defended his homophobic stance in more than 50 follow-up posts.

Jones has since apologized, but he was released by the team. The Canadian Football League followed by issuing a statement asserting that it strives to be inclusive and that there is no place in the league for disparaging commentary on the basis of religion, race, gender or sexual orientation.

McCabe, who does not agree with Jones' tweets, says the incident highlights a lack of LGBTQ+ education and awareness.

"This, to me, is an issue with more than just one person," she said. "This means education systems, sports organizations and companies need to prioritize this type of learning to make sure all stakeholders have the tools they need to be positive role models and good members of society.

"For me, this is tied to the importance of athlete representation in the LGBTQ+ community. The more out role models we have, the more society will see and understand that this is real and around all of us. The more everyone sees somebody they know, love or see as successful come out, the more acceptance there will be because it will be put in their own life context for them."

Pride is about authenticity to McCabe, but it's also an opportunity to tell stories typically untold, with the hope that they're given a platform more regularly.

Tewksbury, a director of the COC, said, "There's a whole bunch of social unrest and change happening. I think one of the things I'm really seeing is the importance of amplifying different voices, listening to people's stories and having dialogue."

"Young kids need to see this and hear these stories," McCabe said. "I think it's critical for parents to openly talk about their support for the LGBTQ+ community, to watch LGBTQ+ movies and shows and to share LGBTQ+ articles and stories with their kids. If you're not doing that, your inaction is further supporting the fact that being heterosexual is 'normal.'" 


Matthew Pariselli is a writer and communications professional in Toronto. He has covered ballet, film and most recently health sciences research.

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