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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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Celebrating sports history: DC Gay Flag Football’s 25th season

Head of District’s premier league says it’s ‘groovin’ to its silver anniversary

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The DC Gay Flag Football’s 25th season is underway. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

What started when gay football fans got together in the 1990s to play their favorite sport is now a D.C. institution with 270 players in 20 teams spread over three fields, playing in both fall and spring. 

“Get off the bench,” shouts the slogan on the league’s website. “Get in the game!” 

The D.C. Gay Flag Football League turns 25 years old this month and is considered not only the premier league of its kind in the District, but is recognized across the country for its players, organization, and spirit.

“The way we run our league and the way we compete make us stand out relative to the rest,” DCGFFL Commissioner Logan Dawson told the Washington Blade. 

For those who don’t know flag football from any other kind, the difference is easy to spot: There’s no contact allowed. As the rules say, “That includes tackling, diving, blocking, and screening. Instead, players wear flags that hang along their sides by a belt. To ‘tackle’ the person in possession of the ball, the opposing team needs to pull one or both of their flags off.” There are a lot more rules, but that’s the one that really sets it apart from tackle football. 

The sport itself dates back to World War II and its origins have been traced to Fort Meade, Md. 

What’s the secret to the league’s longevity? “I think we attract and hold on to great athletes who are highly competitive, not only on the field, but also, in our professional and personal lives,” he said. Dawson, 32, plays flag football as well as manages the league. He’s currently single, but says his first love is the weather. 

“I knew in second grade that I wanted to be a meteorologist,” said Dawson, who moved to the District to be a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. 

A prolific swimmer since high school, he came out as he started grad school at Purdue University in Indiana in 2012. In an op-ed appearing in Outsports in 2014, Dawson wrote about competing in his first Gay Games in Cleveland along with a group of other gay swimmers from Colorado, and left that experience determined to join a gay sports league. 

He found it in the fall of 2018 in the DCGFFL, the same year the league’s Generals team won Gay Games XVIII. The league supports up to five travel teams, which take part in annual tournaments nationwide. It also hosts a summer tournament each year in Rehoboth Beach, Del.

“There’s a good amount of participation by people who played in the league from the very early days,” Dawson said. “I think we’re just in the sweet spot, where we have a lot of the original participants, a lot of new players, and we’re just kind of grooving right now.”

The first group gathered at Francis Field near Dupont Circle in 1994. Three years later, another group formed to play just steps from the Washington Monument Mall. They came together in 1998 to form what is now the DCGFFL. 

“For the majority of those seasons, we mainly had one division that played that was co-ed,” said Dawson. “This is our second season that we’ve had a Womens+ Division made up of [cisgender] women, trans and nonbinary individuals.” The Womens+ teams are called the Senators. 

Jayme Fuglesten is director of the Womens+ Division and has played in the league in most seasons since 2011.

“The DCGFFL has been a major part of my adult life,” she says. “I came out while playing in the league in no small part because of the love and support of this community.”

Why does she think the league has been such a success to have lasted 25 years?

“I think the league has been so successful because of its focus on inclusion and community,” she says. “I remember being so surprised in my early years when JJ and so many others would just come right up to me, hug me, and welcome me. And that really hasn’t changed in the 20+ seasons I’ve been around. It also continues to grow and respond to the needs and desires of our players. One example of that is the new Womens+ division, which gives an additional space for people who identify as womens+ to play and cultivate stronger relationships.”

DC Gay Flag Football plans to celebrate its 25th anniversary with a dance party and silent auction at Penn Social on Saturday, Sept. 23. (Washington Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Next month, the DCGFF will send both Generals and Senators to Gay Bowl XXIII in Seattle. “That’s going to be the first time we’re going to have two Womens+ teams at the Gay Bowl,” Dawson told the Blade. “It’s reflective of the new generation of the league.” 

Earlier generations had trouble attracting new players. As the Blade reported in 2019, what had been a steady number of 20 to 22 teams dropped dramatically to 14, its lowest roster since 2011. The league’s leadership turned it around with new recruiting events, new sponsors, changes in their social event locations, changes to their player draft and a change of venue for league play beyond Carter Barron fields in Rock Creek Park in Northwest Washington. 

Brentwood Hamilton Park in Northeast Washington is now home to the recreation division and Randall Field south of the Capitol is the league’s third venue. 

Just like every facet of society, from coast to coast, what happened next hit the league hard. “COVID happened in spring of 2020,” recalled Dawson. “Everything shut down, and we did not play for what amounted to three full seasons for a year and a half.”

But once the world emerged from quarantine and lockdowns, flag football players started flocking to the DCGFFL. “We’ve had probably over 150 new players join our league in the last two years,” he said.

One thing is certain, said Dawson: Despite the name, not everyone who plays in the gay flag football league is LGBTQ+. 

“It’s a really great community. There’s a straight couple that’s married and will be soon having a child in the next month or so,” Dawson said. “They met playing in the league, just like we’ve had gay couples who meet in the league and eventually get married and have children.”

Prominent among the league’s many sponsors is the NFL hometown team, the Washington Commanders. “They are highly supportive of us, not just financially, but also publicly supporting what we are, and our mission,” Dawson said. 

This current NFL season is the first since 2021 without an out gay player on the gridiron. That’s when Carl Nassib became the first active pro football player to come out as gay. 

(Washington Blade file photo by Adam Hall)

While Dawson said, “I’m sure there are more out there” who have not yet come out, Nassib’s retirement makes this anniversary of the DCGFFL even more significant. 

“It’s unfortunate people still feel they cannot be out while they’re playing and doing what they love, but that’s the reason why something like the D.C. Gay Flag Football League is so important,” he said. “To show that there are gay and trans athletes who exist and love playing sports.”

The league plans to celebrate its 25th anniversary with a dance party and silent auction at Penn Social on Saturday, Sept. 23 starting at 8 p.m. Check the website for ticket information.

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Carl Nassib announces retirement

Openly gay NFL player made history when he came out in 2021

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(CBS News screenshot)

Carl Nassib, who made history in 2021 when he became the first active player in the National Football League to come out as gay, announced Wednesday he is retiring at age 30. 

“This is a bittersweet moment for me,” the free agent wrote in a post on Instagram. “But after seven seasons and just over 100 NFL games I am officially retiring from football to focus on my company Rayze.” 

Rayze is a mobile platform that connects people willing to give of themselves with those who need it most, born of an experience in Tampa, Fla., where Bucs players volunteered as mentors to kids being held in a nearby juvenile detention center. Rayze’s website says the company serves to “shine a light on opportunities that need volunteers, while making nonprofit engagement, volunteer recruitment and donating as simple and intuitive as possible.” 

“It really feels like just yesterday starting out as a walk-in at Penn State,” Nassib wrote in his post. “Football has given me more than I ever could have imagined. I can truly hang up my helmet for the last time knowing I gave it everything I had.” 

Ever since he came out in 2021, the former defensive end for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers has become a philanthropist for the LGBTQ community, especially for queer youth, personally donating $100,000 to the Trevor Project. That year, the NFL matched his donation, and in 2022, Nassib himself matched donations dollar for dollar, up to $100,000.

According to the Bucs, Nassib played in 99 regular-season NFL games with 38 starts,  recorded 187 tackles, 25.5 sacks, 45 tackles for loss, 59 quarterback hits, four forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries, one interception and 19 passes defended. In 2016, he the Cleveland Browns drafted him with the second pick in the third round. At Penn State, Nassib was a star player, leading the nation in sacks and forced fumbles during his senior year with the Nittany Lions in 2015.

“It was not an easy decision. It really, really wasn’t,” Nassib told People magazine in an exclusive interview timed to coincide with his Instagram. 

“This would have been my 23rd football season. I’ve been playing football since I was eight years old, and I’m really excited to move on to the next chapter of my life,” he said. 

Nassib says he began considering retirement last season before becoming a free agent, when he said he was “staying at the Bucs facility until 9 p.m. every night working on Rayze.”

“I feel like it’s my calling and it’s what I’m meant to do,” Nassib says of the app. “I’m really excited to move on to the next chapter of my life and to give Rayze everything that I have.”

In July, he posted that he had accepted an appointment to the board of directors of the local United Way chapter in his hometown of West Chester, Pa. 

Nassib said he is also going to work with the NFL in a new role, in matters related to the league’s philanthropic endeavors and its “diversity, equity and inclusion.”

“I think that I can provide a very rare and specific view of how life is for an out gay player, and I think that there are some amazing opportunities that I can also learn,” he told People.

“Maintaining that relationship shows that the NFL is continuing to support me. They’ve supported me so much over the last two years, and I really couldn’t have done it without that support,” he said.

Nassib said the NFL’s offer to utilize him in this new role “continues to show people that you can be yourself and compete at the highest level.”

But what he’s most excited to do with his time now, he told People, is to spend the holiday season with his family and his boyfriend, retired Olympian Søren Dahl. 

“I’ve spent 11 out of 12 Christmases away from my family, many of them alone in my apartment,” said Nassib. “I haven’t spent Thanksgiving with my family since 2010, so I am really, really looking forward to spending time with my family, my friends, and those special moments. And that’s something that I’ve been looking forward to for years.” 

That’s one of the many reasons why he wrote on Instagram: “I really feel like the luckiest guy on the planet.”

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Close out the summer with Team DC

United Night Out held at Audi Field

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A scene from last year’s United Night Out. (Washington Blade file photo by Kevin Majoros)

Team DC and Federal Triangles Soccer Club will host “United Night Out” on Saturday, Aug. 26 at 7:30 p.m.

This event will celebrate the LGBTQ community and cheer on the Black-and-Red as they take on the Philadelphia Union.

Team DC is the association of LGBTQ sports clubs in the greater Washington region with 42 member clubs (including FTSC) with more than 7,000 participants. Team DC sponsors the Pride Night OUT Series, which helps organize Pride nights with all local pro teams. In 2023, Team DC will sponsor 14 different Pride nights, including the United Night OUT. 

Tickets are $30 and can be purchased on Team DC’s website

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