When New Zealand rower, Emma Twigg, first realised she was gay, she did not plan on being anyone’s role model.
But a break from rowing after the 2016 Olympics in Rio, when she narrowly missed out on a bronze medal, and the support she received from friends and colleagues when she married her partner earlier this year, have changed that.
“I’ve always taken the approach that I wanted to be known as Emma the amazing rower before Emma the gay rower,” the 33-year-old told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview.
“I feel very lucky that I’ve always been surrounded by people that have never shown me any kind of disrespect and my sexuality hasn’t been a focal point of my sporting career.”
New Zealand moved to legalise civil partnerships in 2004, and gay marriage nine years later, and it was after she got married in January that Twigg realised she wanted to use her platform as an athlete to advocate for LGBT+ people less fortunate than her.
“It’s not something that as soon as I figured out I was gay I was comfortable doing. It’s definitely taken some time, and everyone has their own journey in that respect,” she said.
“As I’ve grown, I’ve realised the power of my profile, and the opportunity to do good using the hard work I put into my sport.”
Twigg first represented New Zealand at the World Rowing Junior Championships in Athens in 2003.
She became a single sculls world champion in 2014, and has competed in three Olympics, coming fourth twice.
She temporarily retired from rowing after the Rio Games, and went to work for the International Olympic Committee in Switzerland, and at the 2018 Winter Olympics.
Her subsequent return to the sport was partly motivated by her desire to show young gay people and LGBT+ athletes that “life goes on”.
“I’ve realised it’s less about the end result and more about enjoying the process, inspiring people along the way and making use of my public profile for good,” Twigg said.
“If you do have success, then you’re in an even better spot to do that, so that’s what drives me. Sport is a vehicle to shine a light on these things.”
With the Tokyo Games postponed to 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Twigg said she welcomed the extra year to train.
“If by reading my story someone feels more confident, then that’s a great thing … even if it just helps one young kid or aspiring athlete that is struggling with their sexuality,” she said.
“My job is being an elite athlete, it just also happens that I have a lovely wife, and hopefully we’ll have children. And if that helps change people’s perspectives, that’s great.”
-Seb Starcevic @SebStarcevic – Thomson Reuters Foundation