Dutch swimmer Johan Kenkhuis wasn't publicly out when he casually told a newspaper reporter earlier this year that his boyfriend of four years, Jose, would be joining him in Athens to watch him compete in the Olympic Games. The 24-year-old resident of Amsterdam would join only 10 other openly gay or lesbian athletes in a field of over 10,000. But to Kenkhuis that wasn't important. "He asked me [if I was gay], and I said yes," Kenkhuis says. "It has been known on my swim team for many years. My parents already knew. It's nothing."
The news created a buzz among gay athletes and sports fans around the world, much to the surprise of Kenkhuis. "The mainstream newspapers didn't make a big deal out of it. Some didn't even write about it. It was more the gay media who were surprised."
Kenkhuis went on to win the silver medal in the four-man 100-meter freestyle relay, an achievement that brought him much greater notoriety than coming out in gay-friendly Holland. But that's relative, he says. Being gay is not a big deal in his country, but being a medal-winning swimmer is not much more. "It's not a very popular sport," he says. "It's not like in the United States or other countries in Europe. We have soccer and speed skating and cycling; they are more popular sports than swimming."
Still, everyone in the Netherlands is required to get a diploma in swimming when they are between 5 and 6 years old, and that's when Kenkhuis found his passion for the lap pool. The youngest of five children, it didn't hurt that his family had a tradition of swimming either: Almost everyone--including his brother and three sisters, his father, and his aunts and uncles--are avid swimmers, mostly in amateur water polo. Most others he knew in school joined football or soccer teams, yet Kenkhuis kept his focus on swimming; he was the only one of his friends to do so. He sacrificed most of his free time at a young age to commit himself to training, and by age 15 he was getting serious about a career in competitive swimming.
The soft-spoken Kenkhuis, who speaks fluent English with only a subtle Dutch accent, says he developed a highly competitive nature and drive to succeed by watching his parents build a successful butcher shop in Vriezenveen, a small town in eastern Holland where he grew up. "I learned that if you work hard, it will result in success," he says. So when it came to swimming professionally, he decided he needed to achieve something.
At age 16 Kenkhuis first swam at the European Junior Championships in 1996; he won gold medals in two individual events in 1998. He took second in a 200-meter freestyle relay at the World Championships in Perth, Australia, that same year, where his desire to succeed was strengthened by competing alongside those he idolized. …