Connor Taras – Road to Rio 2016

Alex Mitchell
Latest posts by Alex Mitchell (see all)

For those who haven’t heard of you before why don’t you, in your own words introduce yourself?

My name is Connor Taras; I am 25 years old and live in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. I’ve spent the last 12 years dedicating everyday to the sport of sprint kayaking in determination of reaching my dream of representing Canada at the Olympic games. Some of my achievements so far have included winning a silver medal in the K-2 500m event at the Jr. World Championships; I’ve been on the podium three times at the World Cups, represented Canada at the World Championships and won a silver medal at the 2011 Pan American Games in Mexico. In 2012 I narrowly missed making the 2012 London Olympics by .6 seconds in the K-2 200m event.

I’ve also been working to complete my Bachelor of Business Administration degree with a major in Marketing.

.6 of a second? How did you react to that? Did it drive you forward or did you consider quitting?

Missing out by 0.6 of a second was a hard pill to swallow. I had put 4 years of pure focus into that race. To fall that short of making my dream come true is devastating. It took me months to rebound after our Olympic trials. To be honest I hated the sport after that race. I was furious that I had sacrificed so much for it not to mean anything. It really sucked and it was an awful couple months following. After some time off and putting a lot of thought into how I was going to move forward, and yes quitting was one of those thoughts, I decided to give it another four years.

How do you balance you degree work with kayaking? Is it possible to do all nighters if you’ve been training!

At my university, Mount Saint Vincent University, they offer online courses. I still have scheduled classes every week. Instead of going to campus, I sign into a virtual classroom. It’s just like a regular class. You can use a headset to ask questions, there’s a virtual whiteboard for the professor, and you can press an emoticon that shows you are laughing.

I haven’t been in school full time, so I have been slowly getting through it. I take the majority of my classes in the fall semester when training allows a bit more time to focus on different things. Just like everyone else, I do procrastinate and have to finish some papers last minute. Even when having an all nighter, I still have to get up at 5am for practice the next morning.

What got you in to kayaking? And,  What does a typical day consist of for an Olympic hopeful?

Before getting into kayaking, I tried lots of sports. A friend of mine had suggested I give kayaking a try one summer. The club I joined was Cheema Aquatic Club. One of the attractions at the canoe club that summer was that they had some athletes who recently competed at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. The thrill and awe of getting to interact with them and an immediate love affair with the kayak was the start of my athletic career.

A typical training day for me consists of three training sessions starting at 6am. Two of those will be on water in my kayak. We are usually on the water for a 1.5 hours each session. An example of a workout might be 10 x1000m (race distance). The intensity is 90% effort of your maximum effort. On top of the two on water sessions each day, we also do strength training and running. From a nutritional standpoint, I eat anywhere between 3400 – 3800 Kcal a day. Because Canada turns into a frozen tundra in the winter months, being on the water is not an option because the lakes freeze over.  Instead of kayaking, we spend a lot of time swimming, cross country skiing, running and strength training instead. We also migrate to Florida in February so we don’t have to spend so much time off the water.

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Who are your Olympic heroes?

It’s hard to name one. As an aspiring Olympian, every athlete who competes at the Olympics is a hero of mine. But the ones I looked up to the most were the ones in my sport. There are too many to mention but a few would be Adam van Koeverden, 4x Olympic medalist and Tom Hall, Olympic bronze medalist.

Let’s not beat around the bush you’ve hit the news recently for being a Rio 2016 hopeful who has come out as gay, how does it feel now you are out?

Yes, I recently come out as a gay athlete working towards competing at the 2016 Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro.  I have to say I feel great. Not having to waste the energy I was using to hide my sexuality has given me a new kick on the water. I have more confidence in my personal life, which leads to confidence in training and racing. It’s a great feeling just being able to be myself.

What’s the reaction been like?

The reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. I realize that people don’t care about my sexuality. They care that I’m an athlete who is working towards my dream.

You’ve spoken about ways in which you used to try and hide your sexuality, you’d “Zing around the room like a pinball” at parties, purposely getting so drunk that the girls wouldn’t want to go home with you, how did this make you feel?

Like I mentioned, everyday for me was a constant game of hiding my sexuality. Whether it be the way I thought I needed to sound around my teammates, too, like you brought up, getting drunk at parties so I wouldn’t have to worry about taking girls home. It was all part of the game.

It was terrifying when everyone harassed me to “pick up”. I always was looking for excuses. Most often, drinking to the point of embarrassment was often the easiest way out. How do I get out of this with out making people question my sexuality? Everything revolved around making sure no one found out. I always had this fear everyone was watching my every move. I felt like a spotlight was always on me.

What are you like at parties now?

I am still “Connor Bomb”, as my friends call me. I like to think that I’m still a pretty fun guy without drinking as much. I am a bit more laid back now, but still dangerous on the dance floor! I just enjoy being around my friends, being myself, and having a good time. Parties aren’t supposed to be stressful and I like it better that way!

Five time Olympic champion Ian Thorpe has only just come out stating that he “felt the lie had become so big that I didn’t want people to question my integrity” Does this statement ring any truth with you?

In a way it does. Personally, I think my lie was way bigger to me than anyone else. But he also said, “This trying to live a lie which I was doing. But I was already living somewhat of a lie in my life because I was trying to be what I thought was the right athlete by other people’s standards”. I would say that statement speaks way more truth to me. He speaks exactly to the stereotypes we have of what an athlete should be. Being gay is not in that. It’s been a taboo subject in sport and it is important for athletes like Ian Thorpe and Tom Daley to come out and adjust those stereotypes.

We all have a coming out story, what is yours?

My coming out started one night when I was lying in bed and finally came out to myself. Although I always knew I was gay from a very early age, I never accepted it. I come from a catholic background with strong family values. I dreamed of growing up and getting married to a beautiful wife, having children, and having a great career. I thought I could ignore the fact I was gay and have that traditional image of what a perfect family was. But finally on that night, I remember giving up and accepting that I was who I was.

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So about 6 months later I finally came out to my best friend who I had grown up with my entire life. The ironic part of how I told her was that I was a bit “tipsy”. In the same way I used drinking as an emergency exit to get out of those moments with girls, I also used it as an exit from the lie I had been living my whole life. Within a week of telling her, I had told my closest friends and family. It was a mostly positive experience. It took some people a little longer to accept it, but in the end everyone has been so supportive.

You’ve said in other interviews that when you told your friend you couldn’t say you were “gay” but that you liked guys. Are you able to say you are gay now or do you hold back a bit still?

I still don’t think I sound 100% natural saying “gay” yet, although I do refer to myself as gay all the time now; I don’t have any problem with it. When I first came out, the reason I had such a hard time saying that I was “gay” was because to me, I most often heard the word “gay” used in the context of a homophobic slur. But saying that, as much as it was and still is used, I don’t think it was ever used to hurt anyone that was actually closeted like myself. I just think that because the tiny presence of homosexuality in sport, people aren’t conscious of the effects of that language. So it took me a little time to own that word for what it really meant.

Who did you look up to when taking the decision to come out in public? How did they influence your decision? And, who influenced/helped you personally?

There were a few people I looked up to when taking the decision to come out in public. Mark Tewksbury was one. I read his book called, Inside Out, which was a great insight for me on what it was like to be both a closest athlete as well as coming out as a gay athlete.

Another huge influence for me was John Fennell. John competed at the 2014 Sochi Olympic games in Luge and had come out right before the games. I remember reading his coming out article in the Calgary Herald and was inspired by his leadership and courage to be such a role model for sport. I wanted to support him and the other athletes that have either shared their story or are still waiting to come out.

Paulo Senra has also helped me take the next step. Paulo works for the Canadian Olympic committee and was a panelist at an event put on by the You Can Play Project in Toronto, Canada during World Pride 2014. I saw it on twitter and reached out to Paulo who got me involved with the team at the You Can Play Project. From there, we put together a plan and went public.

I have also closely followed the stories of athletes like Tom Daley, Blake Skjellerup, Jason Collins, and Michael Sam.

Can you talk us through the meetings with You Can Play? What did they advise?

I can’t speak highly enough about the You Can Play Project. I was reminded constantly that this was all about me and to only do things I felt comfortable with. Everyone showed such care and sensitivity. The work that Patrick Burke and his team are doing to provide inclusivity is really changing the sport environment.

I am reminded of an ad released by the Canadian Institute of Diversity and Inclusion

Does this reflect Canada’s general approach to gay sportsmen and women?

I think Canada is one of the most inclusive countries in the world when it comes to gay (LGBT) sportsmen in sports and women. Take examples like the CIDI TV Ad and programs like @FastandFemale, which empowers young woman to stay in sport. This summer, the Canadian Olympic Committee has been showing their support and has walked in the 2014 World Pride parade in Toronto, Ontario, as well as other pride parades around the country. I think Canadians really believe in diversity and support everyone’s differences. In Canada you will continue see more progress more exciting initiatives when it comes to supporting LGBT’s in sport. I think to simplify the approach here in Canada, it doesn’t matter what your differences are. Whether you’re on the field, in the pool, or in a boat, you’re an athlete and that’s what matters.

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Sorry, but got to ask, is there someone special in your life? 

Haha! I have lots of special people in my life! But yes, there is one very special someone!

Can we ask how you met? You sound like a very busy guy!

We met! (Said with a cheeky grin) I am a busy guy. I will say he is from Sweden so there are some challenges living in two different countries. Fortunately with Skype and Whatsapp it makes it very easy to constantly keep in touch when we can’t be together in person.

You’ve recently been to your first gay pride. How was that?

Being at my first gay pride was an incredible experience. I got to walk along side some fellow Canadian teammates and Olympians, who I can’t thank enough for their support. There were 1000’s of spectators watching and supporting the more than 100 floats in the parade. I think I had goose bumps the entire time. Being able to proudly walk in front of my city as myself for the first time was an experience I will never forget.

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Sadly no kayaking events in the Commonwealth games and still some time before Rio 2016. What’s next for you then?

It is unfortunate there is no kayaking in the Commonwealth games. Interesting fact though, Halifax (my hometown) was one of the finalist host cities running for the 2014 Commonwealth games against Glasgow but had to pull out for financial reason. If we had of got the games, kayaking would have been an added event.

What’s up next? Next summer is the Pan American Games in Toronto. I am a silver medalist from the 2011 Pan American Games, which was held in Mexico. My goal is to compete at those games and land on the podium again. The World Championships are in Milan, Italy next year, which will be the continental qualifiers for the Olympics. Then the following year will be Rio 2016.

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What advice would you give to someone who is in the closet. In particular, a sporting personality? Secondly Looking back would you change anything? 

Yes, I would have come out sooner. For me, finally saying it to one person took such an enormous weight of my shoulders and made me feel comfortable enough to tell everyone else and feel comfortable with myself. Find someone who you can trust and talk about it with. Even reaching out to someone who has been through similar experiences can be the difference maker. Talking is the first step!

Looking back, I wasted so much energy hiding this secret when I could have been putting it into achieving my dreams. I realized I needed to rediscover my confidence on a personal level before I could achieve the confidence I needed o preform.

At the end of the day, we are all different in our own ways and that’s what creates greatness. Playing sports should bring people together for the love of the game. Who we love, shouldn’t matter. Be yourself, be a great role model, and be a great athlete and that’s how you will be judged.

Thank you for your time Connor. It’s been a pleasure. Wishing you the best of luck for the National championships you have in the next week. We certainly hope you will keep us informed on your journey to Rio. 

You can follow Connor on the following mediums

youtube channel : connorta
twitter: @connortaras
instagram: CONNORTARAS


About Alex Mitchell

Political observer and current affairs addict. I observe - I analyse - I debate