When New Zealand speed skater Blake Skjellerup came out after the Vancouver Games, he brought visibility to out male Olympic athletes and helped draw attention to the first Olympic Village Pride House. He’s since become an anti-bullying advocate, an outspoken One Direction fan, a role model, and a cover boy for Gay Times. With the Sochi Games just a few months away, we decided to ask him what makes him tick, and more importantly, how does a Kiwi rugby player become a top ranked Olympic speed skater?
TBL: We’re talking to Blake Skjellerup, Olympic speed skater and one of the few out Olympic athletes in the world. I guess a good place to start is, why speed skating?
BS: I don’t really know why. It started when I was ten, and I was playing rugby and broke my arm. There weren’t really many sports you could do at the time with a broken arm. The other sports I was doing at the time were swimming and athletics. My brother said “You could try speed skating” because it apparently you don’t need two arms to do that. It clicked with me, and seventeen years later, here I am.
TBL: Our readers are probably not going to know a lot about speed skating. I know the first time I watched the sport was when you were competing in the Olympics. I know there is short track and long track, but beyond that, I’m a little lost.
BS: Yes, there is short track and long track speed skating. Short track is what I do. Long track is done on a 400m oval, which is similar to track running. Short track is done on a typical ice hockey rink. The course is a 111m lap, where in long track you skate the 400m lap.
The other major difference is in short track is that you’re racing against other skaters where the first across the line wins, where in long track it’s a timed event.
TBL: Short track is where I saw all those collisions in the Olympics. That has to be brutal. How fast are you guys going?
BS: We’re going around 55km/hour.
TBL: This isn’t a sport that gets a lot of air time in the U.S. I know it’s heavily supported in the Netherlands.
BS: In the Netherlands, definitely. Long track speed skating is one of their national sports, and short track is starting to get more attention. And short track speed skating is the national sport of Korea, and is starting to get very popular in Canada. But globally it’s a minority sport and struggles with media attention. They’re trying to rearrange that and make it more exciting for television. But it really is a spectator sport. You need to be there, you need to be amongst the crowd to get the full excitement, like many other sports.
TBL: That’s always true, but I was struck when I watched you compete by how much I wanted to jump into the television and scream for you. It’s a very involving sport because it’s so quick and it’s so tight. I makes you want to jump at the rink.
BS: It is a really involved sport because anything can happen and can change from lap to lap. For me, being in the Olympic ring, the noise was something I’d never experienced before because there are 14,000 people in that arena and it really adds to the excitement of it.
TBL: I notice the skates are very different from what we’re used to renting at the local ice rink.
BS: The skates are very different from what you’d see in a figure skating or hockey rink. The blades are 17.5″ long and 1.1mm thick. The blade is flat, where if you turn a hockey skate over you’ll see that it’s concave. It can lead to injuries, speeding around with knives on your feet. If you’re falling with someone into a wall, there is the opportunity to receive a cut or injury.
TBL: Have you had a bad injury? You did start this because of a broken arm.
BS: My worst injury would be a broken clavicle, which I did in 2009 at the world championships. I was pushed into a wall by a competitor at great speed, which shattered my collarbone.
TBL: That was just before the Olympics.
BS: It was about twelve months before, and I had surgery to install a plate which is still in there, which was my decision. It keeps it fused together if there’s another injury.
TBL: It being a minority sport, does the New Zealand government financially support speed skating? How does that work with you? It must be incredibly expensive to train the way you do.
BS: Yes, it is incredibly expensive to train the way I do. I guess the worst is that there is no support in New Zealand to train at the level I need to be competitive. So I have to go overseas to get the coaching, the expertise and the ice time I need to train properly, so that’s obviously a huge cost just starting out. Then in terms of government support, it is a minority sport. New Zealand is a country where rugby is all, and that’s where all the money goes. There are a few other sports that get some money, but with speed skating, it doesn’t get a lot of support, which makes it really hard.
TBL: You’re training in Calgary now, which has old Olympic facilities for you to use.
BS: Calgary hosted the Olympics in ’88. They established an organization after that to support the winter sports and help them grow. The oval on which I train is the remnants of that facility, and it’s a great training space. We have bobsled, cross country skiers, many different sports.
TBL: You did go back to New Zealand last year, right? Tweeting out pictures of you with a small cat?
BS: Actually I was in Melbourne for the last two years, they built two new facilities and I really enjoyed my time there.
TBL: After the Vancouver Olympics, you became one of the first, and only, out male Olympics athletes in the world. And to this day, it’s largely you and Matthew Mitcham doing that. What inspired you to come out then? It was a huge step for you, and you were very much a trailblazer.
BS: It ties together. Matthew won his gold medal in Beijing, and that was hugely inspirational. And Pride House being in Vancouver and Whistler, which I thought would be an interesting place to visit. They had this exhibition by Jeff Sheng of these college athletes who were out and proud and just basically being themselves and I found that very inspirational. A friend of mine happened to be writing an article on gay athletes in sport asked me if I knew anybody, and I said I didn’t. Then I went back to him and said “You can write it about me” and here we are.
TBL: Has being out been a positive experience for you?
BS: Yes it has been. Especially with the support from the community I’ve received. Before Vancouver I guess I was a bit of an unknown and even in New Zealand I was unknown. And now most of my support doesn’t come from New Zealand, but from the world, who I guess are inspired by what I did. And to me, I don’t really see what I did. I was just being honest and opening up about myself. When I was young, there wasn’t ever a role model, someone to look up to, and that’s where Matthew helped me, and I wanted to repay the favor, help other people who are out there in the closet and struggling, especially in sport to be proud of themselves, to come out and live their lives 100%.
TBL: Obviously with athletes, some get endorsements , and some don’t. And even Matthew has talked about his difficulty getting endorsements, and that was when the gold medal was fresh around his neck. Do you think being an out athlete helped or hurt you with endorsements?
BS: I suppose it didn’t matter at all, because I didn’t have any sponsors before, and I still don’t have any sponsors now. I don’t know what to say on the subject and point the finger of homophobia at the corporates as being afraid of sponsoring someone who is going to affect their bottom line because of their sexuality.
TBL: As far as exposure goes, you did one heck of a Gay Times cover story recently. You looked fantastic. I’ve always thought of you as a little shy for an athlete, so how did you manage to go there, because you really did go there with that cover.
BS: As you said, it’s about exposure, and I decided that this would be a good way of getting some exposure. So I decided to go for it. It’s something I had always thought about and the opportunity had never been there. The opportunity happened, and I took up on it.
TBL: Was it terrifying?
BS: No, not really. I’d worked with the photographer before, Jeff a friend of a friend. He already knew me, I already knew him, and it was a lot of fun to do.
TBL: Athletes are actually showing off their bodies more. The ESPN Body Issue is coming out with a whole lot on display.
BS: I’ve seen a few of them, and it’s quite amazing. I’ve seen a few negative comments about my shoot, like why would you do this. But you’re an athlete. Your body is who you are, what gets you to where you’re going. Why not show it off?
TBL: Well, in your case, you’re an activist, you’ve shown a lot of integrity, there’s much more to you than your body. On the other hand, good job honing your craft!
BS: The important thing is that I have a message I want to put out there, as you know the anti-bullying work in New Zealand, empowering youth is very important to me. So what I can do to lift my profile so I can get that work out there, I’m going to do it.
TBL: It seems like a mostly tolerant place. How bad is bullying in New Zealand?
BS: You’re never going to go to a place that is 100% understanding of everyone, but I think what you can do is you can educate the youth to be understanding, to be tolerant, and as they grow older they pass it down to their children, who pass it down to their children, and eventually you have a society that’s free from bigotry.
TBL: Turning to the Olympics, you’re training for them right now. The 2014 Sochi Olympics are in Russia. Do the current politics of Russia towards GLBT people worry you as an athlete training to visit?
BS: They’re obviously personally concerning to me because they’re disastrous to the youth of Russia. However, from the athlete stance, going to the Olympics in Russia, the most important thing is competing. I’ve been training for this for four years, and the competition is what I’m focused on.
When you’re at the Olympics, in The Village, inside that competitive bubble, you have no idea what’s going on outside there. Being in that Olympic Village bubble, there’s not a lot that goes on. It’s very…solemn. Everyone is focused on competing.
TBL: So it wouldn’t be a distraction for you?
BS: I guess the only way it could be distracting is if the media make it become a distraction. It would come outside the competition.
TBL: People like me talking about it all the time?
BS: The conversation is a good thing, and I think just the presence of out athletes makes a statement.
TBL: Tell me about your anti-bullying projects.
BS: It’s very important to me, because high school wasn’t an easy time for me because I was singled out for my sport, my perceived sexuality, and yes, the assumptions were correct, but I don’t know how they knew it before I did. It was incredibly tough for me I felt very isolated. It was a very tough time for me from the age of 16 to about 22 when I finally managed to accept who I was and understand who I was. And for me, missing out on that part of my life and not being able to be my true self, I don’t want anyone else to go through what I did. I want to share a message to tolerance and acceptance and getting to understand your peers.
I think society is better at it than it was 10 or 20 years ago, but there’s so much more to do.
TBL: Are you working with a specific group right now?
BS: Not right now. I’m still the patron of the Queer-Straight Alliance, in New Zealand. They are continuing their work, but obviously with me not being in New Zealand, my involvement is limited at the moment. I’ve been speaking with someone in Calgary about getting involved here as well.
TBL: You and Matthew Mitcham are both ambassadors to the 2014 Gay Games in Cleveland. What does that involve?
BS: It’s spreading their message and encouraging people to take part. One of the things I find great about the Gay Games is that anybody can compete from any walk of life. There is no exclusion. And there isn’t any other event like that in the world… where anyone from any walk of life can compete. I think that’s fantastic.
Matthew Mitcham and Blake Skjellerup
TBL: Now I have to ask this question, because it comes up every Olympics games, and I read it every two years. They always tell us how many condoms are flown into the Olympic village, and the number is massive. Towards the end, is it really the giant Roman orgy that it sounds like? You don’t have to answer, but I’d love it if you did!
BS: One thing I will say is that as a male athlete there is a lot of testosterone flowing through your system for competing, and once competition is done, there’s still a lot of things going on, you have feelings, and you’re not the only person feeling those feelings which is what leads to those stories coming out.
I can’t personally comment on those stories because during the last Olympic Games I had a boyfriend, so I had him. I wasn’t too aware of what was going on around me, but I’m confident it was going on.
TBL: I’m sorry, but I had to ask. You hear they stocked 300,000 condoms for 14,000 athletes, you do the math and it really sounds astonishing.
BS: Well, one of the highlights of being at the Olympic Games is that everything is free. And one thing everyone likes is free. And condoms are expensive. Why not stock up?
TBL: You’ve got all those gear bags, why not? Now as an awkward segue, you train very hard, you have four meets coming up, what do you do for fun? Do you have a cheat day? An ice cream day? Movies? Don’t-go-to-the-gym day? How do you relax when your whole life is focused on this one goal?
BS: Well, you do have your food cheat day, which is normally a Saturday night for me. I’m very low key this year, it’s an important year for me, and I’m trying to fly under the radar. After Sochi, I can do what I want.
TBL: No boyfriend?
BS: No boyfriend.
TBL: We have to have you meet Robbie Rogers.
BS: Don’t make me blush.
TBL: You know, he has a fashion line.
BS: I did not know that. But I follow him on Instagram and saw he was doing a fashion shoot with Bello which is always something I wanted to do, so I can’t wait to see how that comes out?
TBL: Do you have a desire to do something external like that? Have a fashion line?
BS: I wish I could sing, because I would love to be the sixth member of One Direction, but I cannot sing. I don’t know yet, but I guess it’s about opportunity.
TBL: I find your fascination with One Direction endearing. I saw your birthday pillow. Have you gotten to see them in concert yet?
BS: No, I have not. I look forward to that day. I seem to be wherever they’re not. They’re even going to Australia and New Zealand, and even stopping in Christchurch, but I will not be there. Most unfortunate for me.
TBL: Any other celebrity crushes? We all have them.
BS: I still believe in Justin Bieber. I think he’s incredibly talented. He’s going through adolescence right now and doing things people don’t like, but we all do that, and just because he’s in the spotlight, you’ve got to feel for the kid.
TBL: Blake, I want to wish you luck in your upcoming competitions, and thank you again for talking to us. You’ve been an inspiration to many. We’ll be watching.
BS: Thank you.
You can keep up with Blake Skjellerup via Facebook