Canadian Olympic hopeful Anastasia Bucsis describes herself as "vanilla" and "boring." The Calgary athlete's life is centred on training – six to eight hours a day, six days a week. Even when she announced to family and friends she was gay two years ago, the speed skater didn't want her sexual orientation to become her whole identity.
While gay athletes are often guarded when it comes to disclosing their status to the wider world, or discussing the politics of sex, Ms. Bucsis is now speaking out, about her own sexual orientation and against the anti-gay rights law of Russia, host nation of the Sochi 2014 Winter Games.
Ms. Bucsis had told her family and close friends two years ago that she is gay, but she decided to make a public statement this weekend at Calgary's Pride parade to underscore her opposition to Russia's law, tweeting and and talking to The Globe and Mail about "being so proud to be gay."
"I could never promote that message of concealing who you are with all of this going on in Russia. I'm kind of happy that I did it on my own terms," said Ms. Bucsis, who is hoping to qualify for Sochi in long-track speed skating. She's on track to make the cut: Not only did the 24-year-old compete for Canada in the 2010 Vancouver Games, she is on the national team and has set personal bests this year.
Prompted in part by her opposition to the Russian law that bans gay "propaganda," and uncertainty about how the law will be applied, Ms. Bucsis has joined the ranks of a small group of athletes who have spoken out about being gay. Like other athletes and celebrities, Ms. Bucsis also said there's an imperative to say something so teenagers and young adults struggling with being gay know they aren't alone.
The Russian law, and the high-profile reaction against it, may push other athletes to do the same, said Olympic gold medalist Mark Tewksbury, one of the first Canadian athletes to publicly identify himself as gay in 1998. Gay athletes "need to identify themselves to make sure that they're going to be protected," Mr. Tewksbury said on Monday.
There are still only a handful of active athletes who have told the broader world they are gay, Mr. Tewksbury said. The list includes New Zealand athlete Blake Skjellerup (who was also in Calgary's Pride parade), and U.S. figure skater Johnny Weir. On the professional side, NBA free agent centre Jason Collins in April became the first active male athlete from one of the four major sports to announce he was gay.
Mr. Tewksbury added it was a much different environment two decades ago. He couldn't take the same stand until he had retired from competition.
Ms. Bucsis, he said, "did something I didn't do. She's come out while still competing, and unfortunately I wasn't able to do that back in 1992. I barely even had the language about what I was, let alone the wherewithal to embrace it, and be at peace with it."
Ms. Bucsis grew up in a different era for gay athletes. She was born the year following her city's Winter Games and her parents – inspired by the Olympic facilities adorning the city – gently pushed their tall-for-her-age, four-year-old daughter toward skating.
But in her early adulthood, Ms. Bucsis said she felt lonely and anxiety-ridden. She came from an observant Catholic household. She didn't have any gay friends, and she didn't know any other gay speed skaters. She said she believes her discomfort might have affected her performance in the 2010 Games, where she competed in the 500-metre speed skating event but didn't come close to winning a medal.
"I've only ever tried to be a good person," she said. "I was very confused why I was dealt this card. It was terrible."
But Ms. Bucsis said she finally opened up after friend and teammate Kaylin Irvine encouraged her "to actually live an authentic life." She said her announcement was greeted with nothing but support by family, friends and her fellow athletes.
The International Olympic Committee is still looking for assurances from the Russian government that the propaganda law won't affect Olympians. Ms. Bucsis said if she makes it to Sochi, she would focus on competing instead of any public protest.
"I also have faith in Russia. I think – I hope – that things will get better."