Olympian Gus Kenworthy has temporarily traded in his ski pants for padded bib shorts as he prepares to ride 550 miles from San Francisco to Los Angeles over seven days with AIDS/LifeCycle in early June.
The out silver medalist in men's slopestyle at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, joins 2,500 cyclists and 500 roadies who will set out en masse from the Cow Palace in San Francisco June 2 with the common purpose of stamping out HIV and AIDS and the stigma around the disease. While strides have been made in research, education, prevention, and treatment over the past few years, Kenworthy, who pledged to raise $1 million to help fund programs at the Los Angeles LGBT Center and the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, has joined the fight in part to help send the message that the epidemic is far from over.
“I think that thinking HIV and AIDS is something of the past comes from a place of privilege. We feel very lucky now with Truvada [the drug used in prevention] and things like that to feel safe and feel like we're no longer really at risk, but infection rates are still climbing, especially in poor communities,” Kenworthy, 27, tells The Advocate.
“[With] a lack of education [around HIV and AIDS] we're seeing higher infection rates in young people,” he adds. “It’s important that we keep it in the forefront of people's minds. It's not something that we found a cure for yet, and I really hope that it comes, but as of now it's something that we still need to fight for.”
Kenworthy, who grew up in Telluride, Colo., and came out in ESPN the Magazine in 2015, has become an outspoken and visible presence for LGBTQ people.
"I wanted to do it in my words and once and for all — and hopefully help kids that are in the same position I was,” Kenworthy said at the time of his coming-out.
At the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, he and figure skater Adam Rippon carried a mantle of representation as openly gay Olympians.
Inspired by watching exhausted but exuberant riders at the AIDS/LifeCycle finish line in downtown Los Angeles last June, Kenworthy pledged to raise as much money as possible for the cause and also to heighten awareness around HIV and AIDS.
“It was just being at the event last year and seeing how many people were there and what a huge impact it had,” Kenworthy says. “…And the kind of morale that surrounded it because people were having such a great time at the finish line. It was just such an amazing thing that everyone had accomplished.”
Originally called the California AIDS Ride (CAR), which began in 1993, the event became AIDS/LifeCycle in 2001. Since its beginnings as CAR, the event has raised more than $200 million for HIV and AIDS research, education, treatment, and prevention.
While the champion skier is obviously active and fit, he says he hadn’t been on a bicycle in ages before partnering with the bike maker Cannondale (a longtime partner with the event) to ride a custom rainbow bike. While he's trained on the bike when he's able to fit it into his busy schedule, the sought-after athlete and ambassador for LGBTQ visibility knows that the ride is a test of endurance.
“I kind of just take [training] as we go. I think that it's going to be painful. I think that it's going to hurt to be on the seat for that time and it's going to be just physically difficult and demanding, but it's not as if we're expecting it's not going to be,” Kenworthy says of the demands of the ride.
With a few weeks left until ride-out, where the fundraising tallies will be announced at dawn before riders set out from San Francisco to Santa Cruz on day one, Kenworthy has raised an impressive $153,000 for the cause.
“One of the things that's moved me the most in the process is that — I feel like I'm hounding people constantly for donations and it's so hard to try and fundraise — I have gotten so many donations from people that I would have never expected to get a donation from because I just know that they struggle financially and they stress out about money,” Kenworthy says. “Then to see them donate money to my cause … it speaks very highly on them and it's very touching.”
But Kenworthy didn’t just pledge to raise money, he also pulled together a team and became the captain of Teamworthy, a squad of 11 riders who have cumulatively raised more than $245,000 with two weeks left remaining to fundraise.
“We were talking about doing Team Pride and Team different things and trying to come up with a name,” Kenworthy says about the discussion before they arrived at a play on his name. “Everyone's worthy and this ride is very much a worthy cause.”
The ride will take Kenworthy, his team, and thousands of other riders and selfless roadies from San Francisco to Los Angeles will wend its way from the coast through some tiny inland towns and back through places including Paso Robles, Santa Maria, Santa Barbara, and Ventura, encountering cheering schoolchildren and motorists along the way.
While there’s no way to anticipate the emotional impact of doing the ride, Kenworthy is eager to interact with veterans (a handful of who have participated in every ride since 1993) who were impacted at the height of the epidemic.
“I've been getting some messages from people who lost their loved ones in the AIDS epidemic and they've done this ride every year for their partner,” Kenworthy says of people who’ve shared that they are moved to see him “spreading awareness for the ride, raising a lot of money, and just being involved.”
“ I think I'm most excited just to meet those people in person and hear everyone's story. I feel like I've gotten a lot of outreach and I've felt very touched and very moved by it. I just can only imagine how much more it's going to be actually talking to those people rather than reading those words on a screen.”