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By Jim Provenzano
With so many athletes in the United States hesitant to come out publicly, it’s refreshing to meet openly gay Dutch Olympic swimming medalist Johan Kenkhuis.
As one of only 11 openly gay or lesbian competitors in the 2004 Athens Olympics, Kenkhuis is also one of the youngest of world-class athletes to come out. He won the silver medal in the four-man 100-meter freestyle relay. He also has an impressive record of other victories, having taken fourth in the 50-meter freestyle at the 2003 World Championships in Barcelona, and having placed high at various swimming championships around the world. One of his fastest times in the 50-meter is 0.20.95, set in Dublin in 2001.
At 26 years old, Kenkhuis is at the peak of his career. Coming out so early wasn’t intentional, he says. “I never meant to portray myself as a gay athlete when I gave the interview to a newspaper right before Athens. It was just a subject that came along.” Kenkhuis had mentioned in the interview that his boyfriend, Jose, was in Athens to watch him compete.
Kenkhuis was surprised by the media attention his casual revelation drew. “I never thought it would draw so much attention,” he says. “But it did, and that’s fine with me.”
Kenkhuis hails from a family of amateur swimmers. In Vriezenveen, the small town in eastern Holland where he was raised, schools include water polo and other aquatic sports in their curriculum. Kenkhuis’ love of water polo, however, was sidetracked when he showed promise in competitive swimming.
Already out to his friends and family by the 2000 Olympics, Kenkhuis says his being gay isn’t a big deal, particularly in his country. “I don’t see myself as a role model, and I don’t try to be one,” he says. “I’m just a person who is doing well in sports.”
Despite his modesty, Kenkhuis remains highly accomplished for a swimmer his age. After taking some time off after the Olympics, he won a bronze medal (21.51 seconds in the 50-meter freestyle) at the European Short Course Championships, held in Trieste, Italy, in December 2005.
“After 2004, I had sort of a burn-out, so I took a rest for three months and started a new routine,” he says. Kenkhuis’ regimen includes morning and afternoon swimming, along with weight-training, and workouts with medicine balls, elastic bands, trampolines, and climbing ropes. “They’re very diverse exercises, and they’re very grueling,” he says.
Kenkhuis says he hasn’t met many other LGBT athletes. “I met some, both in Sydney (in 2000), and in Athens,” he says.
He says he was surprised by the small number of gay athletes at Athens who came out. “I don’t think there were only 11 gay athletes in Athens,” he says. “Reporters always talk to athletes about sports, because that’s the reason why we are in the media in the first place. A subject like sexuality or something else of that nature doesn’t come along in interviews that much. They are just focused on what they do best and that’s competing.”
In fact, one of Kenkhuis’ friends on the Dutch Olympic team is also gay. “Everybody is aware of that, including the media,” he says. “They just don’t draw any attention to it here in the Netherlands.”
During the highly competitive events, Kenkhuis says personal lives are set aside. “Everybody’s there to compete and achieve their goals. I actually didn’t notice anything about my coming out in the media, because you are living in a different world during the Olympics. All of my team members knew for many years that I’m gay, so for most people it was just old news.”
For now, Kenkhuis combines his studies in economics with his training. “I get a lot of cooperation from the Cruyff University of Amsterdam to integrate my swimming into my studies,” he says. “I try to give my study extra priority when I’m in Amsterdam and not competing, but I will focus on my swimming when I have to.” This year, while his fellow students had the summer off, Kenkhuis worked through two traineeships in order to focus on swimming.
Kenkhuis prefers to focus on the future of his athletic career, rather than on the past. Although he keeps his most prominent medals in a safe, last summer, he says, “I made a little girl very happy when I gave her my gold medal I won at national championships. A smile like that, I enjoy a lot!”