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Olympic qualification a hurdle for out Tongan swimmer

Amini Fonua lacks perks many swimmers from other countries enjoy

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Amini Fonua, gay news, Washington Blade
Amini Fonua is hoping to qualify for his third Olympics this summer in Tokyo. (Photo courtesy Fonua)

An elite athlete who represents his or her country on the international stage generally receives living expenses and medical insurance funded from a variety of sources.

The athlete may also receive paid travel and accommodation for competitions, high quality racing gear, training equipment, coaching, post-workout recovery treatment and nutritional supplementation.

This week in the Blade’s Game Changers series, we meet an openly gay, two-time Olympic swimmer from Tonga who is funding his own training to qualify for his third Olympics this summer in Tokyo.

Amini Fonua represents a country where homosexuality is illegal and elite athletes do not receive financial support. To cover his expenses, Fonua works as a barista along with side jobs teaching private swimming lessons and mentoring high school athletes hoping to swim in college.

In an effort to minimize his expenses and commit to the training needed to qualify for the Olympics, Fonua recently moved from California to New Jersey. His daily schedule consists of work and traveling to New York City where he trains with the New York Athletic Club.

Fonua grew up in Auckland, New Zealand in a sports-oriented family and was active in rugby, basketball and swimming. By age 14, he turned his full attention to swimming.

“At that age toxic masculinity enters into the equation in most sports. In swimming, everyone is equal in the water,” Fonua says. “I enjoyed the underwater silence of being in the pool.”

He qualified for the Junior Pan Pacs in Hawaii at age 17 and was inspired by the level of competition. Also on hand at the event were college recruiters from American universities.

Fonua was recruited by Texas A&M University and began his collegiate career there in 2009. As a gay man, it wasn’t an obvious choice to enter a conservative institution in a conservative state. He calls it a leap of faith for his sport.

“My freshman year I swam sore and I swam tired. The jump from high school swimming to college swimming was intense and physically demanding,” Fonua says. “Over the long term, my swimming benefitted from the extra muscle I added from two-a-day practices, weight training and dryland.”

While he was at Texas A&M, New Zealand began passing him over for national teams and international travel. His Tongan heritage had been an important part of his upbringing and a family trip to Tonga in 2009 brought a new direction.

“My father had been whispering in my ear, ‘Swim for Tonga,’” Fonua says. “There were no water safety programs or swim lessons being offered at the time in Tonga. The Tonga Swimming Association was established in 2010 and I was cleared to swim for them internationally.”

He became the first Tongan swimmer to win a gold medal in international competition when he won the 50 meter breaststroke at the 2010 Oceania Swimming Championships in Samoa.

Fonua served as Tonga’s flag-bearer in the 2012 Summer Olympics Parade of Nations in London and competed in the 100 meter breaststroke. He was not out publicly at the time.

“It was a very memorable experience as my mom is from England,” Fonua says. “I was so well versed in my Tongan heritage — it was nice to experience my mother’s culture as a family.”

After graduating from Texas A&M in 2013, Fonua came out publicly and returned to New Zealand where he began training with his childhood coach. His first meet back after a break from competing was the 2014 Gay Games in Cleveland where he represented Team New York Aquatics.

“I really missed the sport and found new inspiration at the Gay Games,” Fonua says. “There is a huge community out there that is passionate about gay sports and swimming.”

His path to the 2016 Rio Olympics included a stop at the 2015 Pacific Games in Papua New Guinea where he won gold medals in the 50-, 100- and 200-meter breaststroke events breaking two Games records.

When Fonua arrived at the 2016 Rio Olympics he was one of a handful of out athletes competing.

“Rio was a lot more fun, happy and freeing for me whereas London was shrouded with guilt and shame,” Fonua says. “There were plenty of gay athletes and coaches in Rio, but they were not a loud bunch. Many of them are in situations where they can’t share their sexuality on the world stage.”

He gained international attention in Rio when he publicly criticized a Daily Beast article that outed fellow Olympians, including some from homophobic countries.

“I spoke out against the dangers of outing and published a series of tweets that went viral, followed up by a number of media interviews that helped to get the story retracted, with an apology,” Fonua says. “The International Olympic Committee ultimately deemed the article “unacceptable,” which was actually the first time the IOC had ever acknowledged any LGBTQ presence.”

In his quest for a third Olympics, Fonua says that this time it is with a sense of purpose that includes being an LGBTQ representative. He recently signed on as an athlete ambassador with Athlete Ally, an LGBTQ sports advocacy group.

He kicked off his Tokyo campaign by competing at the International Gay & Lesbian Aquatics World Championships last summer which were held during Stonewall 50: World Pride NYC.

“Having the power of presence, showing up and doing your best are important when you are representing your community,” Fonua says. “There are many members of the LGBTQ community that are out, proud and successful in the workplace. We need more in the sports community.”

Fonua was disappointed with his 100 breaststroke race at the 2016 Rio Olympics. He says his attitude was one of “bubbling resentment” over not being given the tools and access that other athletes received from their governing bodies.

He is not going to let that happen this time around and has adopted the mantra, “We are the hero of our own story.” 

“I want to change the narrative on policy, community support and funding in Tonga. For now, I can’t depend on their support and I have to engage whatever resources are available to me,” Fonua says. “No one is going to swoop in and save me and I owe it to myself to have the best lead up to Tokyo. It is my own responsibility.”

Tonga has never censored Fonua and he takes pride in representing the country. He spent a month last September training in Japan and has a few tune-up meets coming up this year on the road to Tokyo. Included will be the 2020 Oceania Championships in Fiji this June where he is a five-time medalist.

To fund his training camps and competitions, Fonua has set up a GoFundMe page. It isn’t something he is happy about, but it is necessary to complete the purpose of this Olympic cycle.

“I want to be a role model for anyone coming to terms with who they are as a person. It’s important to share this journey with the LGBTQ community and show that you can be your authentic self and achieve a lot of success,” Fonua says. “It’s going to be a big grind to get there and I hope that it ends with that one perfect race.”

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A Revolution for Women in Baseball

Last week, they announced that Rachel Balkovec will become the first woman to manage a team in minor league baseball.

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Rachel Balkovec was hired as a hitting coach in the Yankees’ system in 2019. She will now manage the Class A Tampa Tarpons.Credit. Photo Courtesy of Rachel Balkovec/Instagram.

The Yankees were late on introducing an African-American player to their roster, adding Hall of Famer Elston Howard to the team in 1955, eight years after Jackie Robinson starred for the Brooklyn Dodgers.  The Yankees seem determined not to repeat that bad history.  Last week, they announced that Rachel Balkovec will become the first woman to manage a team in minor league baseball when she takes the helm of the Tampa Tarpons this spring. 

It has been just over ten years since Justin Siegal threw batting practice to the Cleveland Guardians and five since she was the first woman to coach a MLB squad with the Oakland Athletics.  Two years ago, Kim Ng became the first female General Manager of any of the four major professional sports when the Marlins hired her to run their team.  In the two years since then, the dam has burst.  Women have been hired to important on-field positions with professional baseball at an impressive clip.  As baseball has lagged behind other professional sports in bringing women into the game, the current pace of hires indicates that baseball’s embrace of analytics and objective measures have finally penetrated the walls of one of the most enduring old boys clubs in the U.S. and given talented women opportunities they have long been denied.

Ten women will be coaching with major or minor league teams in 2022.  In 2021, Bianca Smith became the first African-American woman to coach in the minors when the Red Sox hired her. Alyssa Nakken became the first woman in uniform during a Major League Baseball game when she coached first base for the Giants in a July 2020 exhibition against the Oakland A’s.  Her jersey now belongs to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.  Cuban-American Veronica Alvarez is not only the coach of the U.S. Women’s National Baseball team, she also served as a spring training coach for the Oakland A’s.

The proliferation of women in baseball is not an accident.  More girls than ever are playing baseball.  Here, in the DC area, 160 girls participated with D.C. Girls Baseball in 2021.  Baseball for All, an organization that supports and promotes girls in baseball, held a tournament last summer that drew nearly 600 girls who play baseball.  There are more women than ever on collegiate baseball rosters.  Major League Baseball has also devoted significant resources to girls and women in baseball, running several development camps for girls in baseball.  Six of the women now coaching professional baseball participated in MLB’s Take the Field initiative, which is designed to help place women into baseball positions. To top it all off, the classic film about the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, A League of Their Own, is getting a reboot on Amazon Prime this year.

The pace of hiring is exhilarating.  Unfortunately, every report of a woman being hired is followed by predictable hateful commentary on social media.  Many cannot imagine that a woman may be hired for a baseball position on merit and resort to making sexist and derogatory comments.  As women in baseball, the coaches are used to that vitriol and have developed thick skin and sophisticated defense mechanisms.  However, also reading are thousands of girls who are inspired by the achievements of these women and they are, sadly, learning that to achieve in baseball means enduring the sexist taunts, gross come-ons, and hurtful comments.

Baseball has a long way to go.  Other leagues have women officiating games, so it should be reasonable to expect that baseball will have women umpires in the near future.  The possibility of women playing professional baseball is tantalizingly close as 17 year old Genevieve Beacom made history last week as the first women to play Australian professional baseball, when she threw a scoreless inning against the Adelaide Giants.

We are watching a revolution in baseball unfold before our eyes. 

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Gus Kenworthy skis for Great Britain at 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics

The freestyle skiing Olympic medalist continues to advocate for sport to become a more accepting place for openly gay athletes

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Gus Kenworthy (Screenshot courtesy Beijing Olympic Winter Games/IOC)

Out British-American freestyle skier, actor, and YouTuber Gus Kenworthy, will be competing in his third Olympic Winter Games, but his first for Team GB next month for the 2022 Beijing Games. In 2014 and 2018 Kenworthy represented the USA where during the 2014 Sochi Winter Games in Russia he became an Olympic Silver Medalist.

In an interview recorded in December, Kenworthy stressed his personal mantra of ‘Let people be themselves.’ The freestyle skiing Olympic medalist continues to advocate for sport to become a more accepting place for openly gay athletes.

Having recently won bronze in slopestyle for Team USA at PyeongChang 2018, Kenworthy is aiming for another podium place at his “third and final Games”, where he’s focusing on halfpipe at Beijing 2022, representing Great Britain. Kenworthy said with quiet determination that this year’s Winter Games will be his last as an Olympic competitor.

Kenworthy joins a “record number” of openly LGBTQ+ athletes heading to the Beijing games, Outsports reported. The 2018 Winter Olympics featured 15 out queer athletes, and Outsports noted that the Beijing games will see more openly LGBTQ+ athletes than previously Winter Games.

PinkNewsUK notes that there was a question as to whether Kenworthy would be able to compete at the 2022 Winter Olympics, which kick off in February.

Just weeks ago, Kenworthy shared in an Instagram post that he recently got a “bad concussion” while at a training camp in Switzerland.

He explained that he’s had a “few serious” traumatic brain injuries in the past so the “seriousness of each added concussion has been stressed to me”.

 

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Out professional soccer player calls out ‘homophobic abuse’ from crowd

The Adelaide United player said he had “no words” to describe his disappointment at being the target of anti-gay insults from the crowd

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Photo courtesy of Josh Cavallo Instagram

Professional soccer player Josh Cavallo, who became the only openly gay top-flight male professional footballer last year, told his Instagram followers over the weekend that he experienced “homophobic abuse” during his last game. 

The Adelaide United player said he had “no words” to describe his disappointment at being the target of anti-gay insults from the crowd at AAMI Park during his team’s Saturday game against the Melbourne Victory.

“As a society it shows we still face these problems in 2022,” he wrote. “This shouldn’t be acceptable and we need to do more to hold these people accountable. Hate never will win. I will never apologise for living my truth and most recently who I am outside of football.”

Cavallo added that he was also targeted after the game online. 

“To @instagram I don’t want any child or adult to have to receive the hateful and hurtful messages that I’ve received,” he said. “I knew truely being who I am that I was going to come across this. It’s a sad reality that your platforms are not doing enough to stop these messages.”

The Australian Professional Leagues (APL) said it was “shocked and saddened” to hear Cavallo’s reports of “homophobic bullying,” according to the Guardian

“Our players, staff and fans have the right to feel safe on and off the pitch,” APL CEO Danny Townsend said. “There is no place for bullying, harassment or abuse in Australian football and we have zero tolerance for this harmful behaviour.”

The APL is working with both teams to investigate the incident, adding that sanctions will be issued to anyone involved. 

In a statement, Adelaide United Chief Executive Officer Nathan Kosmina said that the team was “appalled” at the “verbal abuse” that Cavallo received. 

“Adelaide United is proud to be an inclusive and diverse football club, and to see one of our players subjected to homophobic abuse is disappointing and upsetting,” he said. “Josh continues to show immense courage and we join him in calling out abuse, which has no place in society, and it will not be tolerated by our Club.”

The Melbourne Victory added that it “sees football as a platform to unite fans no matter what background. Spectators found to have breached these standards will be banned from future matches.”

At the end of his Instagram message, Cavallo thanked those sending him positive messages, love and support. 

“Love will always win,” he said. 

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