National Post


- ted wyman

It was a monumental moment that might have gone unnoticed by the average curling fan but meant the world to people who support inclusivit­y in sports.

On Tuesday, Ontario’s John Epping took on Newfoundla­nd’s Greg Smith in a round-robin game at the Tim Hortons Brier in Calgary.

It marked the first time that two skips, who are openly members of the LGBTQ community, faced one another in the Canadian men’s curling championsh­ip.

Epping is openly gay and is married to Tom Shipton, while Smith identifies as bisexual. “Representa­tion is so important,” said Smith, a 24-year-old from St. John’s. “I don’t think people value how important that is. John is a great friend of mine and this is the first time I got to play him. Having two openly LGBTQ+ skips play against each other, at the highest level of any sport, is incredible.

“Growing up I didn’t think I’d see people that reflected myself, who were open and proud about that, in sports.”

While Epping won that game, the score wasn’t really all that important. After the game, the two skips posed with a pride flag in order show the world the significan­ce of what had just happened.

“I just think it was a great moment in our sport to be playing against each other, two skips at a national championsh­ip,” said Epping, a 37-year-old from Toronto.

“I feel very fortunate to have somewhat of a platform through curling that I’m able to help and promote inclusion. Even if it just helps one person, I think it’s great.”

Epping was one of the first high-level curlers — really, one of the first in any sport — to come out as gay. He told his parents in 2011 and his curling teammates in 2012.

To his delight, everyone was supportive, and that has allowed him to become a role model for other gay athletes.

“One hundred per cent, he was an inspiratio­n to me,” Smith said. “Seeing a toplevel skip who is openly gay is huge. I always admired John and always looked up to him as a curler and as a role model. Hopefully both of us can now do the same. He’s a great guy, a great friend and it’s awesome having both of us here.”

Dustin Kidby, who plays lead for Saskatchew­an’s Matt Dunstone and is competing in the 2021 Brier, is also openly gay.

Epping, who curls with Ryan Fry, Mat Camm and Brent Laing, is one of the top skips in the world, though he has yet to break through and win a Brier. His team is seeded second for this year’s event in Calgary, thanks to their standing in the Canadian Team Ranking System last year, and had a 4-2 record heading into a Wednesday night game against 6-0 Kevin Koe of Alberta.

There’s no question Epping wants to win — he’s as fierce a competitor as anyone — but he also wants to show young people, whether they are athletes or not, that they don’t have to hide who they are.

“Why aren’t there more out profession­al athletes?” Epping said. “We’re still a long way away from that in a lot of other sports, particular­ly pro sports.

“It’s really important that we promote inclusion, and we want to create safe spaces for people to play. I just can’t stress how I still feel so lucky to be able to do well at curling and create somewhat of a platform to be able to help others.

“If somebody’s afraid to come out to their family or friends to tell them that they’re gay, then I think that says enough about why we need to do this still. Why are we still afraid?”

There’s obviously still some backlash whenever Epping talks on this subject.

When Smith and Epping posed together for that picture with a pride flag, and posted it on social media, there were negative reactions.

Epping said those come with the territory.

“There are always going to be questions about ‘Why do you need to take a picture like that, with a pride flag and basically announce that you’re a gay athlete?’” he said. “I guess the reason we have to do that is because people are still asking why we’re doing that.

“We don’t really pay attention to it, but of course there was some negative feedback. But the negative feedback was just crushed by all positivity and all the great people and our friends and family and our entourage that has our back.”

Smith, who works as a curling instructor in St. John’s, came out as bisexual when he was still a teenager. He said it was difficult to explain to his friends and family but he’s always had a positive attitude about it and great support from the LGBTQ community.

“We need more diversity in this sport but I think we’re moving in the right direction,” Smith said. “We’ve come along by eons since I was a kid.

“There’s a lot of gay and lesbian, bisexual curlers and it’s great to see. Young kids are going to look up to some of us and say ‘It’s great. We’ve got people there, like ourselves, and we can connect with them and we can play at the same level as anybody. It doesn’t matter who you are, where you’re from, you can play and you can compete.’”

 ??  ?? Greg Smith of Newfoundla­nd, right, identifies as bisexual, while John Epping of Ontario, left, is openly gay. The two met Tuesday in a match won 9-4 by Epping.
Greg Smith of Newfoundla­nd, right, identifies as bisexual, while John Epping of Ontario, left, is openly gay. The two met Tuesday in a match won 9-4 by Epping.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada