Last summer, Pichler had just returned from from Hong Kong and was headed for a three-week tour through Europe for a dozen meets. “They add up points for finals, which basically determines world ranking,” he said.
When asked who his top competitors are, he cited names, mostly Chinese kids half his age, many gold medalists from previous Olympics.
“There’s a few Chinese (including Xiao Hailiang and Tian Liang), a couple of Russians (including Dmitry Sautin). The current World Cup champion is Mexican.” Among the US contenders are Troy Dumais, Chris Mantilla, and Mark Ruiz.
But being internationally known as both a great diver and a gay man, is there a relief, or a burden?
“I feel a lot more now that a lot of things that seemed to be missing, aren’t,” he said. “I’ve had a great relationship with the same guy for five years. That gives me a stability and mental strength. It helped my athletics tremendously, kept me out of doing stupid things in that turmoil period in my life.”
“In diving, you can’t have something like that distract you," he said. "You can’t try an make the Olympic Games when you’re trying to deal with being gay.”
Such pressures may be what harms other closeted athletes.
“That’s kind of what happened in ‘92,” Pichler recalled. “I came out. I was dealing with relationship stuff. I didn’t make the Olympic team. In training again for ‘96, I was in a better situation. I had a relationship. I had my self-confidence. I was strong and stable and ended up making the Olympic team in a sport where most people my age aren’t sticking around.”
Age is a factor. “I’m 30 now,” he said. “My competitors are 19 to 20. A couple guys are 25, 26. A lot of younger divers will be competing until 2004 or beyond.”
As he grows into icon status and possibly into retirement, sponsorship for his career begins to take on more serious consideration.
Thus the entrance of Speedo, one the most discreetly supportive sponsors of openly gay athletes. With pro athletes claiming the closet as anathema to contracts, with the popular swimsuit manufacturer, the opposite seems true.
“I can’t explain that,” Pichler said. “Fortunately, for myself, Greg Louganis and others, Speedo has been supportive. I can’t tell why. They’ve never said anything to me, never questioned me. They’ve also been supportive to IGLA.”
“In swimming, we don’t have a lot of sponsors,” he said. “It’s not an issue that would have prevented me from coming out. But we’re always looking for sponsors. I don’t know if that would effect them or not.”
For Pichler, peace of mind is the greatest victory.
What will be fascinating to watch come September, in addition to Pichler’s performance, is the treatment he’ll receive by the usually “avoid-it” mentality of the straight sports media. While most athlete profiles focus on their families, will Pichler’s partner be given the same respect?
Whether or not he brings up the issue may determine the coverage. Either way, can gay Americans, and gay youth, look forward to seeing him on a Wheaties box?
Pichler smiles. “That’s still something that remains to be seen.”