Out & Proud at the Paralympic Games
Publish Date: 13/08/2012
Claire Harvey is Captain of the ParalympicsGB women’s Sitting Volleyball team that will compete at London 2012 in August. Always an active sportsperson, Claire became paralyzed in one leg after an accident in 2008 and discovered Paraalympic sports. A Cambridge graduate, out lesbian Claire has earned over 40 caps for Great Britain.
Did you always have an interest in sport growing up?
I grew up a sporty child, always the girl with muddy knees and climbing anything - a typical tomboy. Then at 14, as I was starting to become aware about my sexuality, I started playing rugby. Initially I suspect I was attracted by the chance to get to be around gay women, but thankfully I learned to love the sport too!
It must have been hard continuing after the accident. Did you ever think you might not be able to play a sport again?
The accident meant having to rethink lots of things in my life. I thought sport was lost forever, mainly because I had no experience of disability sport other than the perceptions I had from TV. It wasn't until over a year after the accident that I was convinced to go to a Paralympic sports day and try different things, and I am so glad I did!
Do you find it difficult being a woman in sport?
There are definitely fewer women than men in disability sport. On the one hand this makes it easier to get noticed and for younger women it’s hard to find positive role models and networks. Some women need a female only environment to thrive and in many sports there isn't that capacity. Thankfully I am fine being the only woman in a club.
What’s the toughest thing about being a Paralympics athlete?
Elite sport is a roller coaster and having to compete against friends and teammates for places in a squad is never nice. As I only started this journey in 2009, the hardest thing has been cramming in how much I have had to learn about the sport, my disability and all of the nutrition and fitness that lies behind a performance too.
The sheer amount of time and commitment needed is massive, not just from me but all those around me. You hear athletes talk about sacrifices all the time, in my opinion it's not me who has made sacrifices it's those who love me and have moved heaven and earth to enable me to do what was needed. I know I wouldn't have made it without that help.
What 3 things do you think it takes to succeed in a chosen sport?
Hard work, resilience and commitment. Talent doesn't even enter into it! My sport is fast, physical and technical so it takes practice, physical and mental fitness and more practice. There's always times when going to the gym, trying to master a skill that feels like it’s never going to come or travelling hours on end to lose in a competition feels insurmountable, but those are the times when you have to dig in and draw on the energy of those around you to get you through. Mine is a team sport too, so the ability to work well in a group of uber competitive women is a must, and believe me that takes practice!
What is your training regime like?
Elite sport is very much a science. We are lucky to have brilliant professionals around us who help us develop gym programmes, food plans and provide physio input so we are in peak shape at competition times. Currently we train a minimum of 4 hours of volleyball and at least 1.5 hours of strength and conditioning 5 days a week, we also shift training times to reflect when we might play in the day, get people used to getting up early, playing late etc. we also have a lot of psychological input to help us prepare and focus against a backdrop of such a massive event.
How old were you when you ‘came’ out?
I was quite young, about 15. I went through a period when I wasn’t sure, mainly because I was trying to be what I thought lesbians were (in that period very butch with short hair) rather than be comfortable with who I am as a person and see my sexuality as just one part of that.
My parents guessed because I was spending a lot of time with one articulate woman, and confronted me about it; in some ways it made it a lot easier because I didn't have to initiate the conversation.
I took a lot of negativity at school, from both teachers and pupils alike for being so open about being gay; with hindsight I probably did make a big deal of it, but I think that was because I felt people didn't understand me.
Of course once I got into elite sport I had to think about whether to come out all over again, which was an odd place to be after so many years.
What has been the best and worst thing about coming out?
The other day I was Skype-ing my partner and several of the team were coming in and out uninvited to say hi to whoever is on the screen. It made me reflect how truly impossible this would be for me if I wasn't completely out to my team. There is nowhere to hide and I would be truly isolated. It's not until you are in this final stage of prep that you realise how important the support of all those around you is; I can't imagine how I would cope if I couldn't openly and freely draw on the support, messages and banter from my friends, family and of those I love. I would fold.
Not only would hiding my sexuality use up inordinate amounts of energy I need to be putting into my volleyball performance, but I cannot think how I would have managed to feel integrated into the team let alone be in a position where people need to feel they trust me.
The worst bit is other people’s reactions. Ultimately, whilst an important part of me, sexuality is about who I am sexually attracted to and that doesn't have relevance in my sporting life. In one conversation recently a teammate said that her friend had commented on whether she should be worried having to share a double bed at a competition with me. My teammates response was to laugh and say "she is my teammate, a volleyball player who just happens to be gay, not some kind of sex craved lunatic. You don't ask me whether I try to come onto the coach every time we are alone just because I’m straight". That's real progress and messaging, but saddens me that people still think like that.
Do you think it’s important to be ‘out’ especially when you’re in the public eye?
Being a Paralympic team captain throws you into the media spotlight. That's the reality and there is nowhere to hide from it. I guess for me, I have accept that and then it's about how you use it. This is a hard question because I truly believe it should be everyone's choice what they do and don't share about their private lives with the media. If being out makes people uncomfortable then it isn't for them.
However, on the flip side, for those of us that are ok with it, providing positive role models for young people and proving to the public that the LGBT community is as diverse as any other and we don't all live up to stereotypes is a positive thing. Much of people's fear and anxiety around sexuality is that it isn't talked about or normalised in public. I also think the LGBT community has some work to do in terms of reflecting on its tolerance to diversity and difference within.
What are your hopes for the Paralympics?
We are realistic about our position and hope to achieve 6th place, but we want to do it in a competitive, entertaining way and show that sitting volleyball is on the map as the most exciting and inclusive Paralympic sport and GB has a bright future in it. When we when get going who knows where all the training, determination, Brit grit and the home crowd cheering might take us!
All of my team, me included, want to use the games to inspire people to find out who they really are what they can achieve if they give it their all. For each one of us, I hope our unique stories will speak to different groups of people. I very much hope that my journey, as humble as normal as it is, might inspire or at least encourage young and not so young LGBT people to know that it's great, there are teams and organisations who want you and where you will thrive, make the most amazing friends, learn things about yourself you never knew and who knows where it might lead.
What would you like to achieve for the future both personally and professionally?
After the games I want to ensure there is a strong legacy of sport, inclusivity and participation. I want to use my position to make a difference, as well as being part of the 2018 gay games bidding team. To bring the gay games to the UK would be so brilliant! It's definitely time to give back and say thank you to all those people who have got me here and believed in me.
The Paralympic Games Opening Ceremony is on 29 August and the games run until 9 September. Sitting volleyball begins on 30 August. More information is available at www.london2012.com/paralympics