By Kristina Rutherford in Toronto | Photography by John Kealey
By Kristina Rutherford in Toronto | Photography by John Kealey
John Epping would rather let his curling do the talking. But as the only openly gay star male athlete in major North American sports, he feels a responsibility to talk about his sexuality — and hopes his example will empower others.

It’s a steamy 30 degrees in Toronto and soon John Epping will be heading up to his cottage for a late afternoon tee time. The goal for one of the best curlers on earth is to get his handicap back to single digits by the summer’s end. Before Epping heads out, he and his husband, Tom Shipton, are enjoying a cold one at Radical Road Brewing Co., which is a short walk from their home. The beer they’re drinking is inspired by Epping, but he didn’t come up with the clever name, Eppic Ale, or with the sleek design of him firing a rock and part of a rink that wraps the white tall can. Epping did contribute the most important work, though: “I got to taste test a bunch,” he says, flashing a grin.

Normally, the skip of the No. 2-ranked curling team on the planet would not be spending his off-season shuttling between home and the cottage, working on his golf game after a career-best season on the ice with the strongest team he’s ever led. Normally, he’d be coaching and playing overseas. Epping planned to be in Germany right now, introducing 20 athletes to curling as part of China’s developmental program. He and Shipton planned to celebrate their third wedding anniversary there, too, but the state of the world being what it is, they marked the occasion on June 24 with barbecued steaks at the cottage instead.

That Epping throws the last rock for one of the world’s best curling teams makes him remarkable. That he also openly loves and shares his life with a man shouldn’t make him more remarkable, and yet, it does. In major North American sports — and certainly in Canada, curling is among them — Epping stands alone as an openly gay, star male athlete. He is the only one. On the women’s side, two-time World Cup champion Megan Rapinoe and two-time WNBA scoring champion Brittney Griner are just a couple of the big stars who are open about their love of the same sex, but not a single active player in the NHL, MLB, NFL or NBA is — let alone any who are household names. No player in NHL history has ever come out; Jason Collins did just before he played his final NBA season in 2013–14; a couple MLB players have come out after their careers ended; and NFL draft pick Michael Sam announced he was gay after his college football career was over. Collin Martin played three MLS games last season after coming out in 2018, five years after fellow pro soccer player Robbie Rogers became the first openly gay man to compete in a top North American sports league. Few have followed in Rogers’s footsteps: Openly gay male role models in major sports are fewer than few-and-far-between.

This makes Epping’s voice all the more vital. Armed with curling potential his three-time world champion lead Brent Laing calls “limitless,” and with a team capable of representing Canada on the biggest stages, Epping’s impact is only going to get more powerful, both on and off the pebbled ice. He knows when he speaks publicly about his personal life, people will ask — they always do — why he can’t just stick to curling like a champion and leave his sexual preference out of it. And, truth be told, he’d prefer it that way, too. “Wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t have to talk about this? Oh yeah, of course,” he says, leaned back in his seat at a wooden table in the brewery during an interview conducted at least six feet apart. “But we’re not there. Because then why are we afraid to be gay? Why are we afraid to be?”

And so Epping will be unafraid and he’ll be open, in the hope that he can help others feel comfortable enough to do the same.

Epping's star began to rise when he was 20 and led his rink to a junior provincial title. "You always knew about John Epping," says former teammate Tim March. "Everybody did.”

Curling is big on Epping’s mother’s side of the family. Back in the 1970s, his grandpa founded the Ennismore Curling Club just outside Epping’s hometown of Peterborough, Ont., and his mom, Ruth, was and remains an avid curler, the reason her son started sweeping and throwing rocks at age six. “I was actually pretty hooked right away,” Epping says, even though as a kid he was a better bowler — “one of the best in Canada at five-pin,” he swears.

What kept Epping curling was the skip position. “The pressure of throwing the last rock,” the 37-year-old says, in his soothing, gravelly voice. Epping is dressed casually in a white t-shirt with a Sedona desert landscape on it, dark pants and sneakers. He’s also wearing an Eppic Ale hat to cover a full head of dark hair that hasn’t been cut in months (he takes the hat off only for a brief moment to show how long his hair is). “I thrive, I love that pressure of the last rock,” he continues. “It’s such a cool feeling.”

Epping was a known commodity in curling circles from a young age, and he led his team to the 2004 Ontario junior provincial title as a 20-year-old. Tim March, a future teammate at the senior level, grew up playing against Epping when they were teenagers. “John has always stood out,” says March, who now plays lead for Glenn Howard’s rink. “He was ahead of his time … As a competitor around where we grew up, you always knew about John Epping. Everybody did.”

Out of juniors, Epping was recruited by an experienced local skip named Nick Rizzo, and after two years as the team’s third, he became its skip in 2006. That same year, at age 22, Epping led a team to a national mixed curling championship.

His play continued to draw notice. Olympic silver medallist Mike Harris sought out Epping to play third for his team in 2007, and a year later, then two-time world and Brier champion Wayne Middaugh enlisted Epping to play second. “I was looking for somebody young and extremely talented to breathe a little life and energy into me,” says Middaugh, a recent Canadian Curling Hall of Fame inductee. “John definitely did that. He was one of the guys that made it fun for me again. He was an outstanding shot-maker who kept pushing me to be better. He kept asking questions all the time: ‘Why are we doing this?’ ‘What’s going on here?’ He was great to be around, because he wanted to learn.”

Epping’s brown eyes grow bigger as he recalls getting that call to play for Middaugh, and the nerves he felt ahead of their first event as teammates. “He was my idol growing up — I get to play with my favourite curler in the world,” he says, bringing his hands down on the table for emphasis. “I kept asking questions about his career. I just wanted to hear stories. [There’s that game where you name] five people in the world you want to sit at the table with. He would’ve been at my table.”

“I thrive, I love that pressure of the last rock. It’s such a cool feeling.”

For three years, Epping played alongside Middaugh, Jon Mead and Scott Bailey, a group that now owns six Brier and five world titles between them. With them, Epping won his first Grand Slam title and made his debut at Olympic trials. “I was surrounded by greatness,” he says. “To be in that atmosphere was invaluable. And now the way that I am on the ice, the way I see the game, a lot of it is built around those three. I soaked it all in.”

Middaugh says it was a two-way street. “As valuable an experience as it was to him, he was just as valuable to us,” he says. And there’s no doubt in Middaugh’s mind what makes Epping among the world’s best. “I saw it right away,” he says. “It’s fearlessness.”

After leaving his hometown for Toronto at 24 and realizing his life was going to take a different path, Epping took the huge step of coming out to family and friends

Epping was 24 years old when he moved to Toronto and started to realize that life away from curling wasn’t going to look the way he’d long pictured for himself. Up until that point, he assumed he’d one day marry a woman.

“It wasn’t anybody’s fault, it was just how I viewed life and how it was going to be,” he explains with a shrug. “I was never told, ‘You cannot be gay’ — nobody’s ever said that. I have the most loving and supportive parents in the world. But it’s just not something we brought up, that you can be gay. It wasn’t something we thought to talk about.”

Epping kept his feelings to himself — he describes the realization as “a very slow process” — and a couple years later he told a close friend that he was gay. They worked in medical equipment sales together and had become inseparable. She was incredibly supportive, Epping says, and soon after he worked up the courage to tell his high-school buddies, who remain his closest friends today. That was far more difficult.

“My best man at my wedding was one of the last people I told, because I was worried. He means so much to me, and you don’t want to lose him, right?” Epping says. “But that’s in your own head. That wasn’t in his head, but that’s what’s going through your mind when you’re coming out. You don’t want to lose anybody. You care the most about them and you don’t want this to change their perception of you.”

Only one of his high-school friends was upset at the news, and not because he was gay. “Her biggest fear was that somebody would treat me different, and she didn’t want that,” Epping says.

“It was a huge relief. I didn’t have to hide. And I didn’t want to hide anymore.”

When Epping met Shipton through mutual friends in 2011, he was out to his friends but not his parents or his curling teammates, whom he considered brothers. “He was technically in the closet, as you would say. His roommate didn’t even know — he would kind of sneak me in,” Shipton remembers, laughing.

Shipton had himself come out shortly before he met Epping, but for the first year they were together, the true nature of their relationship remained largely a secret, with Shipton known to most as Epping’s friend. “I was completely understanding — you never want to rush someone through that process,” Shipton says. “It’s a lot. It shouldn’t be, but it’s a mentally draining process, having to tell people, always thinking the worst.”

Epping sat his parents down and told them in the fall of that year, after he and Shipton had been dating for a few months. Epping’s dad’s biggest fear was that his son’s life would be tougher. His mom’s was that he’d cut ties with his family — she’d had a friend growing up who was gay, and he’d moved to Toronto, and she never heard from him again. “My mom’s idea was, ‘Oh no, are you going to, too? We’ll never see you,’” Epping says. “But it’s what you know. Those were my parents’ worries.”

Shortly after that conversation, Shipton and Epping and all their parents went up to the cottage together, and their parents had a heart-to-heart. Their sons could still have a family if they wanted, even the classic white picket fence. “[That conversation] brought people together in a nice way, even though there was a little bit of turbulence at the beginning,” Shipton says. The six of them now take a yearly trip to Las Vegas together.

Epping’s grandmother, Irene, who died earlier this year at age 92, didn’t need to be told her grandson was gay. She asked Epping’s aunt whether he had a girlfriend. Informed he didn’t, Irene said: “I like Tom,” who she’d then known only as Epping’s friend. “Isn’t that hilarious?” Epping asks, smiling. “She already knew.”

In 2012, Epping came out to his curling team — then Bailey, Scott Howard and David Mathers. “That was hard because you’re with them all the time, you room with them — it’s your family and friends. You spend more time with them than you do with anybody else,” he says. “But opening up was great. Every worry that I ever had was [unwarranted]. They were incredibly supportive. And then I just let it spread in the curling world — which it did, quickly.”

Epping got countless messages and calls from fellow curlers, some telling him they were proud of him for opening up, others bringing up old stories to make sure he knew nothing had changed between them. “This is who John is,” Middaugh says. “The one thing about him is he always did what made him happy. More than anything, I commended him for being himself.”

Epping counts himself lucky to have friends and family who supported him, and to play in a sporting community that is so accepting. He knows a lot of stories aren’t like his. But part of the importance in sharing his story, he says, is to show that the experience can be incredibly positive.

“It was a huge relief,” he says. “I didn’t have to hide. And I didn’t want to hide anymore.”

Epping was already out in the curling community when he came out publicly in 2017. “It started with, ‘I just want to help one person,’” he says.

Team Epping had been perfect at the 2015 Canadian Open, undefeated heading into the grand slam final against Brad Gushue. A win against the Newfoundland rink would mark a first-ever grand slam title for the rink of Epping, lead Tim March, second Pat Janssen and third Mat Camm, who were in their first full season together.

Janssen and March had reached out to Epping the year before to team up, thinking they could do great things together. And this Canadian Open, Janssen remembers, was the moment he realized they could contend with anybody, and largely because of the guy throwing the last rock. “What we got to see there was how good John could be on his own,” Janssen says. “He stood on his head. It didn’t really even matter how well we played because of how good he was playing at that time. Like, he was making everything.”

So much so that other teams started calling a particular shot “The Epping,” because its namesake was continually coming up with angle runbacks with his final rock, takeouts to score one or two or more. “Teams started guarding the angle runbacks and leaving easier shots for us, to prevent a big end — that’s how hot he was,” says March, laughing. “Honestly, it was crazy.”

Late in the final game, Gushue made a nice draw, leaving Epping with what looked like nothing. “Then John made an angle runback for three,” says Janssen, who will never forget the look on Gushue’s face: “It was like, ‘What can I do?’”

Epping had made “The Epping.”

He curled at a perfect 100 per cent in the final to win his third Grand Slam title, and second as skip. The group would go on to win the next event on the schedule, the U.S. Open, as well — also in undefeated fashion.

March recalls Epping’s incredible leadership that first season when the nerves hit — during March’s first time playing against the legendary Kevin Martin, for example. He saw in Epping an ability to calm the team down and call a game that would see them start out slow and attempt to make a move later on, when they’d settled in. He also saw firsthand Epping’s leadership off the ice. “Because he’d been openly gay in the curling community for a few years, he’d been a great mentor to a lot of athletes already,” March says. “He’d make himself available to anybody who wanted to talk. He’d keep that close to his chest — we’d never hear anything about those conversations. But he was always there for anybody. He sees that as part of his role.”

Team Epping was within striking distance of the world No. 1 ranking before the curling season was put on hold by the pandemic

In 2017, Epping decided it was time to expand his reach beyond curling. He’d helped countless curlers by then, and seen a shift in his own family, even: His and Shipton’s nieces once talked about wanting to marry princes, and then, having seen their uncles’ relationship, they’d said: “Maybe I’ll marry a princess!” Epping wanted to make his sexuality public.

“I think we both realized it was important,” Shipton says. “I know a lot of people say, ‘Well, why is this a story in this day and age?’ But I think people also don’t realize that marginalized communities aren’t treated the same as others. There still is a need for these voices and for these people to find courage in.”

“It started with, ‘I just want to help one person,’” Epping says. “I remember saying that to Tom. If it can make a difference in one person’s life, announcing it to the public and media, it’s worth it. I don’t need to do it for me. I don’t need to tell people I’m gay — I don’t. But I feel somewhat of an obligation to. I’m privileged to be given a talent in my life and to have people that watch and enjoy it, and I feel an obligation to use that platform. And I want to.”

In the lead-up to the 2017 Olympic trials, Epping had been having conversations with March, Janssen and Camm about coming out publicly, but he felt the timing had to be right.

“It’s hard to put into words, [what it was like] being in that moment with him,” Janssen says. “I know he struggled with making the decision, but not because he was worried about himself. He was always worried about what it would do to us and impact us personally or us as a team. He was always checking in with us to make sure that we were getting what we needed, even though in the end, it was way bigger than any of us, right?”

“I’m privileged to be given a talent in my life and to have people that watch and enjoy it, and I feel an obligation to use that platform. And I want to.”

Epping didn’t want his team distracted by questions from the media about their skip coming out ahead of a big event like Olympic trials. He didn’t want to be a distraction, period.

“We always told him, ‘Johnny, if you want to do this, don’t worry about us — we’re here to support you now,” Janssen says. “If this is something you think will help other people, you should just go ahead. Don’t wait because you’re worried about us, about two or three people, because you’re going to help way more than that.”

Epping opted to wait until Olympic trials were over — his team went 2–6 there. “It just seemed like a big relief when he did it, and I think he realized that there wasn’t as much of this backlash as he thought might’ve happened,” Janssen says.

The day he revealed publicly that he was gay, Epping’s Instagram and Facebook messages piled up. Parents thanked him for being a role model for their kids. Athletes asked how he came out to his team. People of all ages told him they were struggling to tell anybody about their sexuality and sought out his advice.

At a curling event soon after, a man in his 60s approached Epping in the stands after a game. “You’re the reason why I came out,” he told the skip. Epping asked if it was okay if he gave the man a hug. He had to hold back tears as they embraced.

Shipton and Epping met in 2011, when Epping was out only to a few close friends. "His roommate didn’t even know — he would kind of sneak me in,” Shipton remembers. They married in 2017.

When you’re a skip in the same province as Glenn Howard — he of the four world championships, 17 Brier appearances and four Brier wins — it’ll make you better, like it did for Epping, sure, but it also makes it tough to break through. For a while, Janssen says, “John was dubbed ‘the best curler not to win a provincial,’ and I know it was weighing on him.”

Epping can’t stand to lose at lawn darts at the cottage, let alone on curling’s big stages. He twice cracked the final of the Ontario Tankard, in 2015 and ’16, and came up short both times, losing to Howard in 2016.

The breakthrough came two years later, with March and Janssen and Camm, when Epping earned a resounding 5–1 win over Howard in the final to capture his first provincial title. “Winning that first one wasn’t even as exciting — it was pure relief. It was like, ‘I’m going to the Brier,’” Epping says now. “You get into the dressing room, it’s that huge sigh of relief.”

Team Ontario finished with the second-best record at the 2018 Brier through the round robin, but they lost in the playoff game and settled for third. At the Brier this past March, Epping’s second appearance, Ontario’s bid ended in a tiebreaker loss among the most stacked field this country’s national curling championship has ever seen.

Regardless of the strength of the competition, though, the result was disappointing, considering the season Team Epping had put together. They opened it with two straight wins and added a third at the Canada Cup in December, locking up the first available berth for the 2022 Olympic trials, set for late next year in Saskatoon.

With two events left on the schedule that were ultimately cancelled due to the global pandemic, Epping was in striking distance of ending the season with the World No. 1 ranking, currently held by Brad Jacobs and Northern Ontario. Epping is now looking forward to returning to action, whenever that may be, and he’s buoyed by the fact he and his team haven’t yet had a full season together. Olympic gold medallist Ryan Fry joined at third for the 2019–20 campaign, so Camm moved to second and Laing to lead.

“When you’re looking for a skip, you want somebody that wants the rock in their hand with the game on the line, and as much as most people will say it, not many people when the time comes actually want it. But John is one of those guys.”

After Team Koe broke up following a disappointing run at the last Olympics that saw them lose in the bronze medal game, Laing made just one call to the skip he wanted to play for next. “John was the only guy on my list,” says the three-time world and three-time Brier champion. “I knew his upside was massive. I don’t think he’d reached his potential — I still don’t think that he’s reached his potential. When you’re looking for a skip, you want somebody that wants the rock in their hand with the game on the line, and as much as most people will say it, not many people when the time comes actually want it. But John is one of those guys.

“He’s a guy that, when he gets hot, he’s really hard, if not impossible, to beat,” Laing adds. “He’s playing better than ever, because he’s got that and also we’re putting him in a position to win more often. There really is no ceiling for him, and there’s only a handful of skips you can truly say that about right now. I think the sky’s the limit, and I’m excited to see what we can accomplish and get John in the record books where he belongs, as a Brier winner and ultimately Olympics and everything else.”

Those are the big goals for Epping. “I haven’t won a Brier yet, I haven’t been to the Olympics — two guys on my team have,” he says, of Fry and Laing. “I still want those badly. Some guys have won 13 grand slams, I’ve won four. I want more. I’m still hungry.”

He wants to do more work off the ice, too, and Epping says he’s still learning how he can best support the LGBTQ community. Recently, through a curling fundraising calendar, he helped raise $11,000 for the Lesbian Gay Bi Trans Youth Line, a Toronto-based organization that makes available same-aged kids to chat with their peers about any struggles they may be having as it relates to their sexuality. “I was August,” Epping says, grinning. He posed completely naked for the calendar — holding just a water ski, standing on his dock as the sun was rising. Shipton took the shot at 5:30 a.m., and it’s the most risqué in the calendar. “Spicy does sell,” Epping says, laughing.

Photo Credits

Photography by John Kealey.