John Fennell remained hidden in the metaphorical closet when he competed in the luge for Team Canada in the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

“LGBT rights heading to Sochi were on everyone’s mind,” Fennell said.

Homosexuality was decriminalized in Russia in 1993, but the country still has a dismal reputation when it comes to LGBTQ rights, thanks in large part to a 2013 law that banned the spread of gay “propaganda.”

“I was really distracted by being a closeted athlete,” Fennell said. “I felt like I had to change who I was.”

John Fennell in action during a Men’s Singles Luge training session ahead of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics at the Sanki Sliding Center on February 6, 2014, in Sochi, Russia. Alex Livesey / Getty Images

Fennell, who, thanks to dual citizenship, is currently a member of Team USA and hoping to qualify for the Pyeongchang Games in South Korea in February, said the unwelcoming environment for LGBTQ people in Russia wasn’t the only reason he chose not to come out.

“I thought I wouldn’t be accepted by my teammates,” he added. “I changed the way I talked to my teammates. I concealed my emotions.”

Nearly 2,900 athletes from 88 countries gathered in Sochi, but only seven of them were out, according to the LGBTQ sports site Outsports. Of these seven athletes, not one was American, and all were women.


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Now, nearly four years later, Fennell is one of three publicly out male athletes competing to qualify for the Pyeongchang Games. He is joined by figure skater Adam Rippon and freestyle skier Gus Kenworthy, who came out publicly after winning the silver medal in Sochi.

An openly gay man has never competed for the U.S. in a Winter Games, and it’s been 14 years since one did in a Summer Games.

Fennell will find out if he makes the U.S. Olympic luge team on Friday, and Rippon and Kenworthy will know their 2018 Olympic status by early January.