It’s been just over a month since Olympic swimming champion Daniel Kowalski put his heart on his sleeve and told the word he was gay. And while the retired swim star doesn’t regret penning his candid opinion piece in The Sunday Age, he’s still trying to find his way.
“I’ve no regrets at all,” he told Sydney Star Observer.
“I’m still trying to find my identity within the gay world. It’s not easy … I feel like I’m 14 or 15 years old, I don’t know how to date properly, I don’t know how to meet people, I don’t have a very good gaydar, I don’t have many gay friends; it’s like I’m a new kid at school and I’m trying to learn all these things.”
The 34-year-old four-time Olympic medallist said the response to his coming out story has been “overwhelmingly positive”.
“I’ve only really had two negative experiences and even then they weren’t bad,” Kowlaski said. “I got called a fucking faggot on the tram, but I prepared myself. In the end I felt bad for him to have so much hate.”
Kowalski’s decision to out himself landed him in an exclusive Australian club for openly gay elite athletes.
“I didn’t entirely know when I was swimming I was gay, but if I had known I wish I would have had the strength then to do it because I understand who I am as a person now and where I’m valuable and that’s [working] with people,” he said.
“It could have gone a long way to helping more people by doing it when I was swimming — but I honestly didn’t know. I had a girlfriend as recently as 2003.”
Kowalski has been out to friends and family for three years, but said his decision to go public was a weight he needed to lift from his shoulders.
“I did it because I wanted a sense of freedom and I felt a responsibility to do it.”
He said the pressure of being a high-profile sports person did in some ways bury his sexuality.
“I think it affected my confidence and identity. I’m not sure it affected results, outcomes, but it definitely affected who I was and how I felt when I stood up on the blocks,” he said. “I was petrified … maybe I did subconsciously know I was gay and I worried … would I be scrutinised? How would I cope with that?”
It took the coming out of UK rugby player Gareth Thomas last year to give Kowalski the strength to face his own personal truth. The decision to come out was made while at work, patrolling a Lorne beach.
“We’d had our work Christmas party the Friday night before and I’d stopped off at Anglesea to stretch my legs. I got on Twitter and saw The Australian had done a tweet: ‘British rugby player comes out.’
“I just sat on the beach balling my eyes out because of the elements in the story I could relate to, and that I was so happy and relieved for a guy I didn’t even know; there was anger, jealousy all these emotions.”
Kowalski got in touch with Thomas and the two have been talking ever since.
“He said to me, ‘How many times have you stopped over the edge of a diving board and not jumped because you’re scared?’ I thought, oh yeah, that’s a good analogy. He said, ‘Well I’m pushing you off’.”
It took a stint overseas and an appearance on Australian celebrity singing show It Takes Two in 2007 for him to feel at ease with his sexuality. He shared the stage with gay rights supporter Kate Ceberano.
“She asked me during that process if I was gay and I flatly denied it. I did send her an email once I moved to America apologising, telling her I was gay.
“She sent one back saying it didn’t change anything, but we would have had a better relationship [had I been more open] on the show in terms of our performance.”
Kowalski said he is now much happier in his skin.
“I’m trying to get through this thing where you’ve got to wear a sign. I watch Glee and now I can be proud I watch Glee. Neil Patrick Harris for me is a god and I don’t like Lady Gaga, so I lose points there.”
The good news for all those single men out there, Kowalski is looking for love.
“I’d love to be in a relationship. I’m a romantic, I’m not going to hide that. And I think I’m a decent catch.”
No disagreement here.
Photo by Travis De Jonk.