Mark Foster: Former Olympic Swimmer on What He Learned Coming Out at 47

Mark Foster swam for Great Britain in five Olympics, starting with the 1988 Games in Seoul

“I hadn’t changed. It wasn’t about who I was going to sleep with or what sexuality I was. I was still me.”

You wouldn’t have heard Mark Foster talk that way when he was competing.

Standing 6ft 6in with a body that seems tailor-made for the pool, he was – and still is – one of the most recognizable names in British swimming.

He was the man who shattered world records, racking up World, European and Commonwealth titles in a career that spanned 23 years and five Olympic Games.

But there was also a part of Foster that the audience didn’t see.

“My home life was my own secret life, which allowed me to go out and just be ‘Mark the Swimmer,'” the 51-year-old explains.

“Probably because I seemed tall enough, strong enough, ‘manly’ enough, I kept the questions out of the way. It was sports – and sports people aren’t gay, right?”

Except, of course, they are – and so is Foster.

five years later share your sexuality with the world,external link the swimmer spoke to the BBC’s LGBT Sport podcast about what he’s learned – and how times have changed.

“There were no athletes to admire”

Foster was taught to swim by his father, who himself nearly drowned when he was pushed into a river as a schoolboy.

But in reality, her son still risked ending up in the pool.

“I felt at home in the water, and I have the right physique for it,” Foster said.

“I’m 6ft 6in and would have sucked at gymnastics, but I was good at swimming.”

This physique was coupled with a determination, even at an early age, to keep improving his times in the water.

And after a young Foster watched Britain’s Duncan Goodhew win gold in the 100m breaststroke at the 1980 Moscow Olympics, he knew swimming was what he wanted to do.

And yet, away from the pool, other feelings began to emerge.

“At 13, I knew I was a little different,” admits Foster.

“But all I ever heard – at school, in the papers, everywhere I went – was that being gay was wrong.

“It’s me, and I’m told that’s not normal. And there was no sportsman that I could look up to and say, ‘Well, it’s me and I’m like them.

“So I got used to shutting off that side of me, and I started juggling and living two separate lives.”

“I had this little voice where I was afraid of what people might say”

Marc Foster
Foster won gold in the 50m freestyle for England at the 1994 Commonwealth Games in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, retaining the title four years later in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

For his entire professional career, there were two brands.

One was the charismatic competitor who became a six-time world champion, won two Commonwealth Games gold medals and 11 European titles, and broke a host of world records.

“It was about medals and building teams, but it was always about getting better,” Foster said.

“My world record in the 50m freestyle was in the shortest event with the fastest stroke – so if you’re the world record holder, you’re the fastest person on the planet in the water . That’s pretty cool!”

It is the Mark who has participated in five Olympic Games and who, at his last Games in Beijing in 2008, had the honor of carrying the British flag into the Bird’s Nest Stadium for the opening ceremony.

“I kept pinching my hand while I was carrying it,” smiled the swimmer.

“I thought that moment would never happen again, and it was humbling.”

But there was also the other Mark who – after dating his mother – was determined not to let anyone outside of his family know about his sexuality.

“I had this little voice where I was afraid of what people swimming might think, afraid that they wouldn’t want to share a room with me,” Foster said.

“I was the big, strongest guy on the team, the brawny guy who made the event cool. I was captain and I wasn’t going to get up there to get shot or worry about what they might or might not think.

“So I got used to hiding my private life.”

Marc Foster
Foster was the flag bearer for the British team at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing

“I just think: you see Catherine, she lives in Cambridge”

Like many LGBTQ+ people, Foster has become an expert at blurring the lines in his personal life to keep his sexuality a secret.

“I used to tell my swimming friends that I was going home to see ‘Catherine’,” he says.

“She was the wife of a friend I knew a lot, so I had an easy story.

“I remember at the 1995 European Championships in Vienna, I was in a hotel room with all the guys. The boys were walking around the room, talking about football and general things, and the subject from whom you see came.

“And I just remember sitting there thinking, ‘You see Catherine, she lives in Cambridge.

“I’m not even listening to what’s going on. I’m just sitting there, hoping I don’t turn red, thinking, ‘Don’t start sweating.’

“I was kind of trapped in my head with stories.”

“I had to do my part”

Neither his retirement from active competition nor his successful stint as a pundit during BBC’s coverage of the London Olympics made Foster any more willing to open up about his homosexuality.

Appearing as a contestant on Strictly Come Dancingexternal link brought him to the attention of a wider audience, but also came with an unwelcome intrusion of newspaper reporters who wanted to know about his private life – which, on the contrary, made him more determined to keep his sexuality out of public view.

And while the swimmer had begun to confide his secret to some of his close friends, it wasn’t until November 2017 – at the age of 47 – that he felt comfortable enough to do so. share with the world.

“I became very good friends with Clare Balding, Gareth Thomas, Tom Daley,” Foster said.

“And to hear that in some countries there is still the death penalty [for LGBTQ+ people] – and that even in the UK people are still beaten and insulted – I thought, ‘Why don’t you stand up?’

“Adding my weight it might help someone in another part of the world, it might help someone in the UK… I had to do my part.”

Mark Foster, Rebecca Adlington and Helen Skelton
As well as London 2012, Foster was part of the BBC team at the Rio 2016 Olympics, working with Rebecca Adlington and presenter Helen Skelton.

“I was always Mark – and if you can go with the love, you get the love back”

With this decision to finally speak publicly, the “two brands” had become one – and, five years later, Foster is just as comfortable talking about her sexuality as her swimming.

It’s a remarkable turnaround for a man who has spent an entire professional career determined to separate the two things.

So does he think times have changed when it comes to LGBTQ+ inclusion in sport, and would he like to have done something different?

“It’s worlds away from where we were when I was a kid,” Foster says.

“There’s a lot more people who are themselves, which is great. But again, you see in the news that someone gets beat up because they’re gay, so we have a ways to go.

“I don’t think there’s a right or a bad time for people to date. I was 47. Would I like to be 15? Yes, I would, if I had to new my time – but I don’t.

“But I found out that my friends were my friends.

“I always thought they wanted to hang out with me because I was ‘Mark the Swimmer’. But actually they liked hanging out with me because of who I was, and I didn’t have not changed.

“It wasn’t about who I was going to sleep with or what my sexuality was. I was always Mark, who is silly and childish and likes to argue a lot, but loves people.

“And if you can go with love, you get love back.”

Mark Foster was talking to Jack Murley on the BBC’s LGBT Sport podcast. You can hear new episodes every Wednesday on BBC Sounds.

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