updated 07/13/2014 AT 9:00 AM ET
•originally published 07/13/2014 AT 11:00 AM ET
After years of denial, Ian Thorpe has come out as gay.
The Australian Olympic swimming legend sat down with Sir Michael Parkinson for a tell-all interview airing Sunday on Australia’s Ten Network, and addressed the rumors of his sexuality that have surrounded his career since he was a teenager.
“I’m comfortable saying I’m a gay man,” Thorpe, 31, revealed to the British TV host. “And I don’t want people to feel the same way I did. You can grow up, you can be comfortable and you can be gay.”
Thorpe is a champion freestyler who has won five Olympic gold medals. He also has 11 World Championships golds, the third-most of any swimmer. Despite his long list of achievements, he admits much of his decision to deny his sexuality stemmed from his fear of Australian audiences.
“What happened was, I felt that the lie had become so big that I didn’t want people to question my integrity and a little bit of ego comes into this,” Thorpe explained. “I didn’t want people to think that I had lied about everything.”
He adds, “A part of me didn’t know if Australia wanted its champion to be gay. I am telling not only Australia, I’m telling the world that I am and I hope this makes it easier for others now.”
Although Thorpe admits to being “a little bit ashamed that I didn’t come out earlier, that I didn’t have the strength to do it,” his recent revelation has drawn support from family, friends and his large fan base.
“I’m not straight and this is only something that very recently – we’re talking in the past two weeks – I’ve been comfortable telling the closest people around me,” he said. “I’m pleased to say that in telling them, and especially my parents, they told me that they love me and they support me. And for young people out there, know that that’s usually what the answer is.”
Coping with Depression by Self-Medicating
Thorpe was admitted to a rehabilitation center for depression earlier this year, and says the pressure of keeping his sexuality a secret played a part in his downward spiral. After being treated for depression at the age of 18, the Olympic swimmer eventually turned to self-medication with alcohol.
“I didn’t want anyone else to know, to share my problems with people, that I’m unhappy because I’m living what is … a dream life for an Australian,” he said. “I knew I was a little bit different but there were times that I just wasn’t happy. It was a lethargy that followed me that I didn’t understand.”
He continues, “[I thought], ‘I’ll have a drink so I feel better,’ then it becomes cyclical – you start to drink, you start to self-medicate.”
Up until the interview, Thorpe has consistently denied any same-sex attraction, including in his own 2012 autobiography, This Is Me.
“The thing that I find hurtful about it is that people are questioning my integrity and what I say. That’s the only part I find hurtful, that this is something I would be embarrassed about and that I would hide,” he wrote in his book. “For the record, I am not gay and all my sexual experiences have been straight. I’m attracted to women, I love children and aspire to have a family one day.”
But, his dreams for the future have not changed much – Thorpe is still looking forward to finding love and having kids. “I’d like my own family,” he said.