Illustration by Ego Rodriguez
Fresh off a three-week stint in Switzerland practicing with Team USA, Gus Kenworthyfeels pumped. The freestyle skier just landed a new trick in the halfpipe, a right-side double cork 1440 where he inverts and does four full rotations in the air. If he completes the stunt in PyeongChang, South Korea, this February, it could win him a gold medal at the 2018 Winter Olympic Games, but only if he brings focus and intensity before the judges and makes these superhuman feats look effortless while completing the run of his career.
That would be challenging enough, but the freeskier also heads to South Korea as the first out gay man competing in an extreme sport, and he's now doing it on athletics' greatest international stage. He will stare down a slopestyle course from the precipice of history. "I'm feeling the pressure for sure," he says.
These games present an enormous opportunity for Kenworthy to prove not just his own prowess, but the capacity for an LGBT athlete to become the best in the world. "I didn't want to come out and for people to be like, 'Oh, he competes in the sport and he does OK,'" he says. "I want to be the guy that's taking names, on the podium, and winning events. When I came out, I was ranked for overall cumulative disciplines at number one -- and I still am. I've continued to work hard to keep that rank."
After coming out to ESPN Magazine in 2015, Kenworthy quickly become the subject of widespread media attention, almost all of it positive. He served as one of the models when Polo Ralph Lauren revealed Team USA's closing ceremony uniforms on the Today show in November, and will be among five athletes featured in Procter & Gamble's "Thank You, Mom" campaign this year. Corporate sponsors rushed to sign Kenworthy as the face of gay inclusion in sports. The universal embrace came as a pleasant surprise to the athlete, who had braced himself for rejection when news of his sexuality broke. "I set myself up for getting backlash," he recalls. "I had taken screenshots of my followers, because I wanted to know how much it was going to drop. It was so crazy, because it was such the opposite reaction."
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His next season turned out to be his best competitively and he believes living openly improved his performance on the snow. It's a happier life without the crushing pressures of the closet, he says. And he knows the price of secrecy.
While attending the 2014 Winter Games in Russia, Kenworthy became the subject of unexpected media attention after his plan to bring home a family of stray dogs went viral. His boyfriend at the time, photographer Robin Macdonald, actually found the animals, but attention poured on the Olympian. "He was the unsung hero, and I was being heralded," Kenworthy recalls. "I would say my 'friend' Robin is doing this, but he just wouldn't get included in the write-up."
Then Kenworthy won silver in slopestyle, and did so as part of a rare in winter sports U.S. sweep of the top spots. The image of three handsome American athletes on the podium inspired an inundation of Tiger Beat-level questions. "People wanted to know who was our celebrity crushes," Kenworthy says. "It changed from being able to avoid questions and dodging, lying by omission, and it became just lying." These frustrations and Russia's oppressive "homosexual propaganda" laws almost pushed him to come out in Sochi, but he couldn't. "It would have been before I told my mom, my dad, my brothers," he says. "Ultimately it wasn't really my time."
In retrospect, Kenworthy thinks the suppression contributed to the end of his five-year relationship with Macdonald. He'd always imagined coming out after his professional skiing days ended, but within a year, Kenworthy took the leap and came out, sharing his news as one of the sport's top contenders.
Now in a relationship with actor Matthew Wilkas (Gayby), Kenworthy can no longer imagine putting up with the restraints that once surrounded his covert love life. "Dating in the closet is torture," he says looking back. "It's one of the most difficult things, especially if you are completely closeted. And I was, so I had no one to talk to if something in the relationship was bothering me or if I needed to vent."
And as far as life on the slopes, Kenworthy believes he's already changed the homophobic tone on the hill. People stopped calling everything bad "gay," at least in Kenworthy's presence. The biggest shock came not from sponsors, but from people who once hurled hateful comments. "When I started to see my first boyfriend, some of the guys in the industry gave us shit, because suddenly we were hanging out all the time," he says. "But there was this one skier who would say really fucked up shit, really rude comments. Actually, it was just bullying." After coming out, Kenworthy got a call from that skier, who he will not name. "He was all choked up and said, 'I'm so sorry, I didn't know all that time, and if I ever did, I wouldn't have said anything.' It made me cry."
Now that the fear of getting outed has ceased, the silver medal from Sochi creates the most pressure in his career. "Last games, I was a dark horse for my event," he says. "Nobody was looking at me as a medal favorite. There's expectation based on last time and the years since. And then I came out so there's a whole new audience watching me."
He knows there's more at stake than his place on a leader board. Last summer, the Human Rights Campaign awarded Kenworthy its Visibility Award. During his acceptance speech, the skier thanked past athletes like Major League Soccer player Robbie Rogers and NBA's Jason Collins for coming out while still wearing jerseys. Those individuals influenced Kenworthy to come out during his career, he said.
Sports fans for years have hungered for a superstar who flies the rainbow flag as more than an ally. Kenworthy could be that athlete. The U.S. Ski and Snowboard Olympic team rankings for 2018 list Kenworthy at number two in slopestyle and number four in half pipe, and he also enjoys a top 100 ranking in big air. If he leaves South Korea with gold around his neck, he could be remembered as the first out gay man to dominate a Winter Olympics.
At 26, Kenworthy figures this will be his last Olympics, and he's already thinking about how he'll be remembered. "I hope that any gay kids see me as beacon of light, not just in sport but in general," he says. "You can be gay and be proud of that and not have to worry about being unsuccessful or unaccepted. I did come out in an industry that could have been really not accepting, and I was at the top of my game, and it was a positive thing."