PARK CITY, Utah – Gus Kenworthy’s life has changed, and unlike most athletes who make it big at the Olympics, it’s only partly because of the medal he won.
When he left Sochi four years ago, Kenworthy was known as the silver medal-winning, dog-saving freestyle skier who was part of a historic U.S. medals sweep in the first Olympic ski slopestyle contest.
His supposedly perfect stay in Russia was something much less, however, mainly because of the secret he kept. He was gay but would not tell the world for almost two more years. Now that he has gotten that out in the open, he feels a great sense of relief, but he also is aware that his newfound comfort comes at a price. Fair or not, his next trip to the Olympics, next month in Pyeongchang, carries higher stakes.
“I’ve got more eyeballs on me,” he said. “My platform’s a lot bigger. I signed a bunch of Olympic sponsors and I have the LGBT audience watching me, and I want to do right by them.”
Four years ago, there was a strange disconnect between Kenworthy’s made-for-People-magazine story – man wins medal, then goes around the mountains saving stray dogs – and his unwillingness to embrace it, especially once he returned home.
What most people didn’t know was that it was Kenworthy’s boyfriend at the time who was doing the heavy lifting with the dogs – getting their vaccinations, handling the paperwork and helping bring them home – and the boyfriend, along with everything else about Kenworthy’s private life, was still a secret. Kenworthy said his dream would have been to ski down the mountain, win the medal and rush into his companion’s arms to celebrate.
“I felt like I was already being so courageous with my body and my actions and the things I was doing in order to try to win and be the best,” Kenworthy explained in 2016, in discussing his coming out with The Associated Press. “Then, I was being such a coward in this other way, where I wouldn’t let anyone know. So they were battling each other. I’m excited where those two things can go hand in hand.”
Kenworthy’s coming out has led to different expectations from different sections of the LGBT community. He’s well aware he cannot satisfy everybody.
His opinion regarding President Donald Trump and a potential post-Olympic White House visit that he would skip got more buzz than those of most, in part because Kenworthy is now seen as someone unafraid to speak his mind, when many of his fellow Olympians might not.
“I think me not going will make zero difference, but it makes me feel I’m doing a little something, and I’d be proud not to go,” he said.
His willingness to stand up, and stand out, has earned him widespread approval in the endorsement world.
Olympic athletes have always had short periods to cash in on their once-every-four-years window of fame. And more often than not, simply being a great swimmer or freestyle skier is not enough to carry the day. Given the messages of tolerance and equality the Olympics try to promote, the 26-year-old silver medalist quickly became a popular target for sponsors. Among those who signed him are Visa, Toyota, Chobani, Deloitte, Ralph Lauren and 24 Hour Fitness. There were other offers he turned down.
“He really speaks to not just his own story, but to a much more positive, outgoing, authentic scope that resonates with a lot of people, and not just the LGBT community,” marketing expert Joe Favorito said. “In an era of less inclusion, he’s the inclusion star. If he does well at the Olympics, it ratchets things up for him, not just for coming out, but for being the kind of inclusive individual who other people can rally around.”
Kenworthy is doubling down on his Olympic medal possibilities, seeking spots on both the slopestyle and halfpipe teams. Though his skiing got better in the immediate aftermath of his coming out – he won silver medals at the X Games in both freeski events – the Olympic qualifying period was a struggle until last weekend. He got his first victory in slopestyle at Snowmass, but still needs good results next weekend in Mammoth Mountain, California, to guarantee himself a spot on either team.
It’s all part of a new world for the silver medalist – more complicated in some ways, but far more enjoyable in others.
“I’m definitely ‘The Gay Skier’ now, and that’s OK,” Kenworthy said. “I knew I was stepping into that role when I did it. In some ways, I don’t care that that’s the label that sticks. I took the step to come out publicly and I wear the badge proudly.”