Before there was Gus Kenworthy or Adam Rippon, there was Simon Dunn, the gay Aussie who joined the Australian bobsled team in 2014.
At the time, he was one of the first out men in the ultra-masculine world of winter sports. Dunn was embraced by the LGBT community, and has become an Insta-hunk with more than 120,000 followers.
But his brave example also put Dunn in a sometimes-harsh spotlight: Though he'd long dreamed of joining Australia's bobsled team at the Pyeongchang Games, Dunn ultimately withdrew and retired from the sport in 2016.
"Being an openly gay athlete might have been my downfall," he says, "both in the way I was perceived and treated by those around me, and how my overruling desire to be an 'out and proud athlete' often wasn’t well received."
We spoke with the 30-year-old Dunn, now a successful personal trainer in London, about his decision to leave bobsledding, his legacy for out athletes, and his revived passion for the (even more grueling) sport of rugby.
You were training for the Pyeongchang Games but decided to pull out. What prompted that decision?
There were many reasons. The Olympics were a dream of mine, so it was hard to walk away but I’ve learnt in the sporting world that not all decisions are your own to make. Being an openly gay athlete might have been my downfall, both in the way I was perceived and treated by those around me, and how my overruling desire to be an “out and proud athlete” often wasn’t well received.
I think I might be partially to blame as it became my main focus. I know of several gay athletes competing at this games who’ve remained in the closet and now I understand why. We still have a long way to go to be accepted by the sporting world.
When you came out there really were no out male athletes in winter sports. Now we have Gus Kenworthy, Adam Rippon, Eric Redford, and others. Do you think you helped break that silence?
I really hope so—these are all athletes that I look up to and admire. If my openness about my sexuality made even the smallest impact on their decision to come out, it will’ve made it all worth it! We’ve had so many people before me who came out and paved the way. Every time someone does, it gets easier, although it's still a very hard thing to do.
It’s often not the general public we need to gain acceptance from, rather the sporting community.
Adam Rippon's been in the news as the subject of debate and discussion. Any words of advice for withstanding so much scrutiny?
Adam is my hero of the games—he’s completely unapologetic and I find that admirable. Scrutiny comes from both inside and outside of sport. It’s the people within that personally had the greatest effect on me. If he can withstand that, I think he’ll continue to excel as the amazing athlete he is!
Is there a difference in people’s perception about gay men in figure skating, than say bobsled or skiing?
I think people always assume figure skaters are gay based on the sport. Of course that's not the case and its a very traditional sport, which plays a large part in skaters not coming out. The difference with sports like bobsleigh, skiing, and rugby is that the athletes are generally perceived as hypermascline and “straight.” But it doesn’t make coming out in those sports any less courageous than, say, a figure skater coming out.
A lot of people don’t think of bobsled as a very physically demanding sport. What kind of training did you have to do?
Those people would be very mistaken! We push a 440lb-sled 50 meters in about five seconds, after that we hit speeds of up to 150 kilometers per hour (about 93MPH) with a g-force of 5gs of pressure. It's extremely taxing on the body and has been described as like being in a washing machine full of hammers. It’s very draining.
So training was a lot of Olympic lifting and sprinting to ensure we had the power, strength, and speed. Most of the preparation for bobsleigh was done off the track.
How do you keep in shape now?
I’m still pretty active—I’ve returned to rugby and currently play for The Kings Cross Steelers in London. We’re enjoying an unbeaten season as top of our league, while preparing for the Bingham Cup in June in Amsterdam. It’s an inclusive team, so it's nice to be involved with a group encouraging the LGBT community to be involved in sport.
What's the biggest difference between bobsled and rugby?
Endurance. In bobsleigh, I’d push for five seconds whereas rugby is 80 minutes of ups and downs. It’s taken me a long time to transition back to rugby. I also tend to get hurt more in rugby, whereas people would assume bobsleigh was more dangerous.
In the last two years I’ve separated and dislocated my shoulder, fractured my radius, partially tore my bicep from my tendon, suffered a concussion, and recently damaged a disc in my spine. Perhaps its time to go back to bobsleigh!
We just celebrated Valentine’s Day. Did you and your boyfriend do anything special?
This was our first Valentine's together, but we agreed to not go out and save the money. So I brought the restaurant home, cooked a three-course meal, decorated the house, lit candles, and suited up!
Felix is amazing and so far the relationship is great. I met him through the rugby team we both play for. He’s an ex-long jumper for New Zealand so our passion in sports and being active is what drew us together.
Lastly, is it bobsled or bobsleigh?
It depends where in the world you are. I generally go with "sled" as it is a bobsled. The sport is bobsleigh, though, and when I was competing it was definitely bob-slay!
For info on Simon Dunn's fitness and nutrition programs, visit the By Simon Dunn website