Simon Dunn living sports dream only after enduring personal hell

Simon Dunn Image Supplied by Simon Dunn

Simon Dunn is an Australian sporting representative, intensely proud to do his utmost for the Green and Gold in bobsleigh. To achieve that high honour, he has been victimised, ostracised, alienated, humiliated, bashed and forced out of what he loved the most for many years because there were some who made it too hard for him to persist. He has been a victim of prejudice as an openly gay sportsman.

His trials have been endless, but defiantly he has stood tall, to the extent that his persistence might see him represent Australia as a member of the nation's bobsleigh team at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.

Dunn is now based in Calgary, having just finished a season of competitive bobsledding with the Australian contingent in the North American Cup circuit through Canada and the United States. It's a long way from where he grew up playing rugby league, in the working-class suburbs of Wollongong, a rigid stewing steak-gravy-and-two-vegetables type of industrial city a little more than one-hour's drive south of Sydney.

We can't tell the story as powerfully as Dunn can, so the remainder of this story is told in his words:

I played as a lock, and when I was 16, 17, 18, began to stand out from the team. It was also around that time I was struggling with my sexuality. I came out when I was 18, in my final year with the club. It just got too much for me to deal with, as a suburban rugby league in Wollongong wasn't exactly a place for the timid.

I came out to my friends first when drunk at a school party. And then I thought: "S--t, my parents might find out from someone else." So I had to sit them down and have that conversation. With my parents, it took a bit of time for them to accept it. For my mother it was tough. I had between 12 and 17 years to come to terms with it. When I told her, she had 10 minutes.

Then I informed my league teammates.

"You would never now hear the derogatory N-word spoken on a sporting field. You often hear the F-word though. The only person who I know who said something about it and stood up to it on the sporting field has been David Pocock." Simon Dunn

I told the guys at my football club. I remember one training session shortly after, and we were doing scrum training. Another one of the forwards, who was a year younger than me, questioned whether he wanted to be in the scrum with me and said that I shouldn't be in it.

The coach at that moment stood up for me, which meant a lot. He asked the guy, "If there was a player on the field you really needed, who would it be?" The player said: "Simon." To which the coach said: "Well you have to accept that Simon is in the team, and a person's sexuality has no part in it."

The coach put my teammate in his place, and he kept playing. But at that age, when you come out and say you're gay, you question everything. Having your own teammates not wanting you on the field was tough and was part of the reason why I quit the game, actually all sport, for a considerable amount of time.

I quit sport for seven years in fact. And that was a sacrifice. Sport is what I love. It is always what I have loved. Deciding not to play it, well, you know what that would have been like. I moved to Sydney, kept training, and then I saw the Convicts rugby team and what they were doing.

Sydney Convicts, formed in 2004, are Australia's first and inclusive gay rugby union club, but it took me forever, about three or four years, before deciding to play with the Convicts, because in my mind I still had those teenage thoughts of where I was struggling with the idea of a gay man being a sportsman.

You learn to believe a gay person doesn't have a place in the sporting field. To "unconvince" yourself of that takes a long time. But when I decided to play with them, my life changed, and it was great being back doing what I absolutely love.

Playing with the Convicts allowed me to accept my sexuality a lot more. I could see a lot of things I did between moving to Sydney and deciding to play rugby, which showed that I still had issues with what I was. Then being involved with people with common interests, doing the same things and enjoying the same things as yourself changed me a lot.

But it wasn't all a dream. There were some horrendous moments, particularly in 2013, when I was the victim of an attack.

I was walking with a teammate who was straight, and the two of us were gay-bashed. We were on the corner of Oxford and Riley Street in Sydney, an area where you are meant to feel comfortable about being who you are, and this happens.

[See Dunn's article about the incident, "I was bashed for being me."]

I headed overseas a short time later, when I made the most unexpected of sporting detours.

I moved to Canada to play rugby, and where I worked was actually at the Canadian Sports Institute gym. After a few games of playing rugby, I thought bobsledding looked fun and something I'd like to do.

I was never a skilful rugby player; it was more about strength. My rugby position was inside centre, and if the opposing winger was small, they put me out there to try to dominate. Yes, I could be a bit of an a----.

After about three games of rugby, I got approached by the pilot in the Australian bobsleigh team, Heath Spence. He had seen me at the gym and thought that I should try out to see whether I'd like it. So he got me involved with the Australian team.

[Bobsleigh as a sport is somewhat different. As Greg Growden notes, the celebrated sportswriter Dan Jenkins wrote in 1988: "Bobsledding is a sport in which demented people sit on a sled that goes 2000 miles per hour down an ice ditch. The same sport is often practised without ice -- when four drunks leave a fraternity party in a BMW."]

If you're at the top of the run, and you're not a little worried, then there is something really wrong with you. I wouldn't say that I am used to it. You still have that thought in the back of your mind that if you crash at the bottom, it's going to be mmmmm pretty tough.

I'm the brakeman and am involved in the two- and four-man.

I generally prefer being No. 2 for the four man because it is easier to jump in as you don't have to dodge anybody and get under the seat. And obviously, with the two man you don't have any other option but to get into the back.

I don't drive the bobsled; I just do what I'm told.

On TV, it looks like a smooth ride. It's definitely not. If you hop into a car with no seat belt, and you do a corner at 150 kph, the guys in the back get bashed. It's like that in bobsleigh. It's pretty nice for the pilot, as he has a seat and sees what's happening. But when you're in the back, if you slightly tap a wall, it just throws you against the side and you get belted. I've had bruises that are perfectly shaped by the framework of the bobsleigh.

You get asked: "How about that crash you've just had?" Crash? You just roll over. The worst part is when you hit a wall hard because your whole body just gets bashed. There's about five Gs of pressure on you in the corners. It's a really rough ride.

When you get out after the ride, you are just relieved that you didn't crash. Quite often I can't get my helmet off, because I am shaking so much, and there's so much adrenaline going through your body. And often you just can't sleep that night, because you're so worked up.

Then there's the magnificent adrenaline rush of representing your country.

I have always been a proud Australian. I grew up wanting to represent Australia, and that has happened in a completely different sport than what I expected. To have the chance to not only represent Australia but to represent my family and my sexuality, well, words can't describe how good that has been. I still have a long way to go, because there are bigger and better events I want to be involved in.

Ideally, it would be nice to go to the Winter Olympics in South Korea in two years, but I am just trying to do the best I can while I can. There's now no bobsleigh events until September, so my focus has returned to rugby, and I'm preparing to play for the Convicts in the Bingham Cup (the world cup of gay rugby), which is being held in Nashville in May.

I'm also committed as an ambassador for the Pride in Sport Index, which will be used by numerous sporting bodies in Australia, including the Australian Football League, Cricket Australia, National Rugby League, Australian Rugby Union, Football Federation of Australia and Water Polo Australia to regularly measure how they support lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) players, staff, spectators and supporters.

[The Pride in Sport Index will be published every year to show how participating sporting organisations measure up. The Index was developed following the release last year of the ground-breaking Out on the Fields study, which provided disturbing statistics, including that only 1 percent of respondents felt that LGB people were accepted in sporting culture and almost 80 percent believed that openly LGB fans would not be safe as spectators.]

I really hope the Pride in Sport Index does work, and that our sports organisations are held more accountable over what they do with the LGBTI players and fans. I feel like we are the last group to be discriminated in the sporting world. It has in the past been easy for the organisations to brush us off, because we are not traditionally sports fans.

We are out there. There are gay fans and athletes. If they take it as seriously as we would like them to, it could change Australian sporting culture and a lot of people's bias.

Growing up playing rugby league, you find out that the opposition is constantly called f-----s by the players and the fans. I have learnt to hate that word. A lot of people try to own it. I look at it far differently. There are a lot of people who have been gay-bashed, and that term would have been the last word they ever heard. So it's not a word people should try to own.

You would never now hear the derogatory N-word spoken on a sporting field. You often hear the F-word though. The only person I know who said something about it and stood up to it on the sporting field has been David Pocock.

[In a ground-breaking moment, Pocock, the Brumbies and Wallabies back-rower, during a match against the Waratahs in Sydney last year, alerted the referee Craig Joubert that an opponent was making derogatory homophobic slurs at two Brumbies players. The culprit, Waratahs lock Jacques Potgieter, was later fined $Aus20,000 for making those slurs. The South Africa-born Potgieter, on his volition, also visited a Convicts training session to apologise for what he had said.]

David Pocock is genuinely a good person. I always have and always will have a lot of respect for him. There would have been so many players who would have ignored that, but David made an example of that guy.

If I were a 15-year-old and had seen Pocock standing up to that, I probably would have stayed in sport far longer rather than giving it away for a number of years.

I also often think back to that night when I was bashed and was called that word.

It is a very worrying thought that if on that night I had become one of those one-punch victims, I wouldn't have been able to achieve what I have the past few last years. And, perhaps, what I hope to achieve in the coming years.