By Emilie Medland-Marchen, March 14 2017 —
Anastasia Bucsis is a long track speed skater from Calgary, who has represented Canada twice at the Olympics. She has been a voice for change in the sporting community throughout her 24-year career, advocating for LGBTQ rights as an ambassador of You Can Play and Athlete Ally, along with protesting the anti-LGBTQ laws in Russia during the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi. While the 2016–17 season may be her last, her impact in the sporting community has been invaluable in improving the recognition and vocalization of marginalized athletes in sport. The Gauntlet sat down with Bucsis to discuss her celebrated career and her plans as an activist following her retirement.
The Gauntlet: How has your season been going so far this year?
Anastasia Bucsis: Yeah, 24th season at the Oval. I’ve been very lucky. I’m pretty nostalgic because I am retiring after this season. Unfortunately a chronic knee injury has kind of derailed my plans of making a run for [the 2018 Olympics]. That was really in my plans and it’s not in the cards. It’s been overwhelming, but when I take a step back, I’m just so grateful for everything that’s come into my life because of speed skating. I’m just trying to focus on the positives.
G: What originally drew you to speed skating?
B: I’m from Calgary — I was born in 1989, so I’m absolutely the product of the Olympic spirit that’s left in this city. I’m very grateful to be afforded that opportunity to chase my dreams. I’m humbled because not a lot of people get that. I wanted to be a figure skater and I’m 5’10”, so my parents kind of steered me away from that. They knew that I wasn’t going to have the physiology to be successful in that sport. My dad just wanted me to learn how to skate and instead of putting me in hockey, he put me in speed skating. It isn’t really a sexy story — I just didn’t quit. There were a few low years, I don’t think I was born with two left feet, but I probably wasn’t born with any crazy talent over the general population, I just kind of stayed the path.
G: What is it about speed skating that you love and what is it that has allowed you to stay for so long?
B: Sport is absolutely a microcosm of life. I have a huge appreciation for all the lessons that have come into my life because of speed skating. But it’s not even really about winning — it’s about my hatred of losing, the hatred of losing against myself. Throughout my career I’ve really just held myself accountable to certain goals and accomplishments. I’ve always wanted to be competitive with myself. It’s not like you’re playing a sport — it’s very intense and very physiologically hard. You’re racing against yourself and you’re competing against yourself at all times. So I think that that pursuit of excellence and holding myself accountable to certain standards, that is really what drove me.
G: In the past, you’ve mentioned that you’ve struggled with some mental health issues leading up to Sochi. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?
B: I was unfortunately diagnosed with clinical depression in January of 2013. To be completely candid — I’m gay. I really struggled to accept my sexuality. Growing up Catholic [and] Conservative from Calgary, some denial and repression really came easily. And I just really struggled to accept it. I’m almost embarrassed to say that now, but I feel as though I owe it to kids that are struggling, the LGBTQ community, to admit that struggle. Because I think that if we don’t talk about the struggle we continue to suffer in silence. We suffer from silence and further stigma, and everything else that comes with it. I really struggled to accept my orientation, my identity. I was very ungrounded, very lost. And unfortunately, after years of thinking negatively of myself, I was diagnosed with clinical depression. That is something that is part of my story and I realize that is something that’s a part of my life — and I’ll always kind of struggle with that. But I’m proud to say that I’ve learnt a great deal from that and I’ve learnt a great deal about myself.
G: You were involved in the movement protesting the anti-LGBTQ rights laws in Russia during the Sochi Olympics. How did you get involved in that initiative and what did that mean to you personally?
B: Everyone throws around the word initiative — and to be completely candid, I didn’t know it was really necessarily an initiative when it came out. I just knew it was right for me to stand up for what I believe in, because I lived with so much anxiety. When you’re in the closet and you want to be out and you’re scared, it’s all-encompassing. I can’t imagine, just drawing from my experiences, how anxious I was, how unhappy, how much I struggled, how lonely I was, confused, everything, growing up in Calgary in a country that prides itself on acceptance and diversity, with the best parents, best family, best friends, amazing teammates. I just imagined my own struggles and I just can’t imagine if I was an LGBTQ youth in Russia and linking my sexuality with pedophilia. I knew that I would regret for the rest of my life if I didn’t come out. That was almost three and a half years ago. I am proud of myself that I stood on the right side of history — and I wouldn’t change that for the world. I didn’t realize it was going to be as big of a deal as it became — I was the only Canadian who came out and unfortunately the only athlete from North America who came out and I didn’t really sign up for any specific initiative, I just wanted to stand up for what was right.
G: You’re also involved in organizations with the You Can Play Project and Athlete Ally. Can you tell me how you got involved in those?
B: You Can Play is very close to my heart. I’m very lucky to be part of such a wonderful organization that fundamentally, we’re just trying to say — if you can play you can play. I love how straight-forward that message is. You Can Play has definitely become part of my daily life and I’m a huge advocate for that simple message. Because it shouldn’t be based upon any other merit or anything besides the ability to play. Sport is a huge microcosm of life where you learn about the world around you and it’s a huge agent of change. We need to make sure that it’s an inclusive place for everyone.
G: Do you think sport is a safe space for LGBTQ individuals, or is that perception changing more slowly?
B: It’s changing slowly — and I wouldn’t want to ever discredit the progress that we’ve made — but to even look at it on a macro-level, you only have to look at LGBTQ suicide rates, the disproportionate amount of homelessness that identify, to recognize that this is still a huge problem in society. And the only way we’re going to bring about this education, and further this discussion and eliminate those boundaries and stigmas of locker-room homophobia is to talk about it. I do think that it is getting better, but we still have a long way to go. Sport is a heteronormative, gender-policing area of life — and as much as it is an agent for change, it still is a very conservative, old-boys’ club. I am proud to be Canadian, and I think the Canadian Olympic Committee has made strides to make it a more inclusive place, but the discussion is far from over.
*Edited for clarity and brevity.*