Ten Icelandic athletes are set to compete at the EuroGames in Stockholm in August. On the team is Swiss ex-soldier Stephan Jón Hufschmid who’s determined to set a personal goal.
“Yes, I’ve set my mind on it, that’s something I always do,” says Stephan, who will be competing in swimming, that is in the 100 meter breaststroke and in the 50, 100 and 200 freestyle stroke – to be exact.
For the past year Stephan has been training hard with Styrmir, Iceland’s queer sports club for the EuroGames, which are considered one of the largest LGBTQI sport, cultural and political events in the world. This year around 5.000 pariticipants are scheduled to compete and over 200.000 guests are expected to show up for the tournament which will take place in Sweden between 5th to 9th of August. The Icelandic delegation consists of ten athletes who will be competing in 3 disciplines: running, dancing and swimming. This is the second time Iceland takes part and according to Stephan training has generally been going very well.
“Unfortunately there was an accident. One of our swimmers, Julio, was also going to compete in diving, so he had to practice with a gymnastic group as well. And then after one jump he landed very badly so he broke both his legs,” he says. ”Thankfully he can walk now, but not compete. Apart from that, everything has gone very well thanks to a great coach, Hólmgeir Reynisson, a good programe and bunch of very determined athletes,” he adds with a smile.
But why did join Styrmir’s swimming team in the first place?
“What I like about swimming is how you’re on your own,” Stephan explains. “You can’t blame anyone else if you don’t succeed. Not your team members, not a lousy judge, no one. Only yourself.” Sounds harsh, hard-core and very mature.
But that’s how Stephan sees things and maybe it shouldn’t come as a surprise considering his background. Stephan is originally from Switzerland but has been an Icelandic citizen since 2009. He first came to Iceland in 1996, as an ICYE volunteer, to work on a farm in Hvalfjörður, (which is a deep fjord just north of Reykjavík city).
“I was on a farm for a whole year, just milking cows,” he laughingly describes. He actually did such a good job, that he was offered to come back the following year, which he did. “After that I left for home, but the bond I had made with Iceland kept pulling and finally I came back in 2000, this time for good.”
“Unfortunately there was an accident. One of our swimmers…landed very badly so he broke both his legs.”
Before moving to Iceland, Stephan was a member of the Swiss army. “I finished 17 weeks of military school and then did three weeks of army practice every other year. Total time around 225 days,” he recalls and says he wasn’t very fond of the military school. “The school was run with tyranny and some of the things we were asked to do were ridiculous, like crawling through muddy puddles in freezing weather. When I started army practice things had started to change a bit, because of results of recent public voting, where almost 30% of the people wanted to shut down the army. The army had started to focus on working as a whole, where everyone had a mutual goal.”
Despite how harsh things were in the army, Stephan says he sees his time there as a good time. However, coming out was not an option. “There would have been severe bullying. I remember one friend of mine, who was a bit slower than the rest, a little different maybe, and that was enough. He was bullied all the time. I don’t even want to imagine how it would have been, coming out as gay.”
In 2008 Stephan joined Styrmir, which back then only had a soccer team, and he says it helped him a in regards to coming out. “It really opened a new door into social group of LGBT people, which I hadn’t had before. I’m not a big fan of the nightlife you see. I’d rather hang out with friends at home and play cards or board games,” he explains. “Sports and outdoor activities are more of my thing, so when I heard of the soccer team, I saw an opportunity to meet guys who might be like-minded and who were also gay.”
Although Styrmir was a stepping stone in Stephan’s coming out story, it wasn’t the first time he came out. “When I was around 18-19 I tried coming out to my friends and family in Switzerland. It was during the time when AIDS had recently come up and my family didn’t take this very well,” Stephan explains. He pauses for a bit. “Today I can say that I understand their reaction, but back then I just kind of sneaked back into the closet.”
Stephan says he also feels more at ease with his sexuality in Iceland than in Switzerland. “Homosexuality is more hidden in Switzerland. It’s not out in the open, you don’t really hear about gay politicians, for example.” And there are no such things as Out and proud or Refusing to be invisible. As a result Stephan feels he also has to lay a bit low there. “Although my family and friends back home have accepted that I’m gay, people’s attitude is to ignore it rather than embrace it.”
Therefor Stephan feels that events such as EuroGames and LGBTQI sport teams are necessary. “Mainly I think they’re important in group sports, such as soccer, but also in swimming. I think prejudice still exists in these kind of sports, although it doesn’t seem to be that common in Iceland and almost non-existent amongst women.”
When asked about how the Icelandic delegation feels about going to Stockholm, Stephan says that they’re a little bit nervous about doing well, but mostly excited. And although swimmer Julio is not allowed to compete due to injuries Stephan says he won’t be left behind. ”Oh no. He’ll be cheering for us on the sideline.”
Main photo: Stephan in the army. Background picture shows Styrmir’s soccer team.