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Gay athlete Anastasia Bucsis says sports is the ‘final frontier’ of homophobia.

Handout/COC

In the moments before Anastasia Bucsis stepped on the ice to race, when her sole focus should have been on what she had to do to win, the speedskater would be consumed by worries that went way beyond sport.

What if her competitors knew she was gay?

"Which is ridiculous because it shouldn't matter," Bucsis said. "But when you are still in that closet and you know that you are being inauthentic, for me that was an all-encompassing issue, and it was incredibly, incredibly unhealthy."

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Bucsis, rhythmic gymnast Rosie Cossar and paddler Connor Taras share their challenges of growing up as gay athletes in a new Canadian Olympic Committee public service announcement. Launched Tuesday, the spot is part of the COC's #OneTeam campaign, which promotes LGBTQ inclusion in sport.

Their stories are varied, but their hopes are identical.

"I came out so that others that were struggling with the same issues would feel as though when they came out that this one piece of their identity wouldn't define them. And if I have to talk about it a little bit right now, I'm more than happy to take up that challenge," Bucsis said.

"I'm just happy that I can help someone because when I was in that position I had no one, and I really made a promise to myself that I would take up that role if needed."

The campaign, which was created partly for the COC's Education Youth and Community Outreach program, explores the theme of inclusion and includes images of Bucsis, Cossar and Taras as children.

Taras, a native of Waverley, N.S., came out publicly before last summer's Pride celebrations in Halifax. A massive weight lifted, he went on to have his best summer of competing.

"Probably for about 75 per cent of the year you're living with your teammates, and on top of the stress of training and competing. . .you're trying to play this game from the moment you wake up in the morning, trying to hide this, every minute you're worrying about it," said Taras, who recently retired from competition. "It was debilitating at times."

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Cossar, a 23-year-old from Toronto, had a similar story of isolation. She travelled the world in rhythmic gymnastics but never met another gay athlete. She came out to her teammates one by one.

"Some of them I was worried about because I had heard some homophobic comments from them," she said. "But I realized, and they told me, that when you're brought up in a certain culture where people throw around comments you don't really think about it, you just copy and say the same thing."

Sport is the "final frontier" of homophobia, Bucsis said.

"It's still a very conservative realm of life and there's gender binaries and there's language that we use that we don't even realize. . . there's a cult of masculinity about 'harder, faster, stronger, bigger,' and not fitting into that definition of normal is not really talked about, and it's stifling," she said.

But sport also provides a platform, and gives athletes a voice. And Bucsis, Taras and Cossar will happily speak for others who can't.

"That's one of the most amazing things that sport can give us, it really is a microcosm of life and they say that sport is a mirror to society and sometimes a magnifying glass," she said. "And I'm just so proud of our COC for undertaking this initiative and I think it really will change the landscape not only here in Canada but worldwide."

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All three say their coming out publicly has prompted young athletes to seek them out to talk about their own sexuality.

"And that made everything that I did worth it," Taras said. "When I had other people feel comfortable to come out to me and share their stories, that was the reason I did it and that made me feel really special."

PrideHouse Toronto is also an official partner with next month's Pan American Games.

"It just shows how inclusive we're trying to make sport," Taras said. "And I think for athletes to see that it's actually a part of the overall organization of the Games is really important because it really embraces that inclusiveness, it's part of the Games and it's part of the message that we're trying to deliver with sport."

#OneTeam was produced in partnership with Triple Threat Entertainment, and includes #OneTeam ambassadors Curt Harnett, Eric Mitchell, Hank Palmer, Jason Burnett, Rudi Swiegers and Sam Sendel.

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