Gus Kenworthy, chasing first gold, recalls trembling when he came out
PARK CITY, Utah -- Asked if he has a motto, Gus Kenworthy wrote, “The longer you wait, the harder it gets.”
It’s the morning of Oct. 22, 2015. Kenworthy, the 2014 Olympic ski slopestyle silver medalist, is at the house of two friends after a sleepless night.
“I went to post what I had written, post the link to the article and post the photo saying that I was gay,” he recalled Monday. “I was so scared.”
Kenworthy, a London-born, Colorado-raised 25-year-old, knew as far back as age 5 that he was gay.
When he decided to come out a year and a half after the Sochi Olympics, Kenworthy did an interview and a photo shoot. It would be another month before publication.
The longer you wait, the harder it gets.
“There’s no going back now,” Kenworthy thought during those four weeks. “I couldn’t be, like, actually, you know what, I’m not quite ready yet. I’m scared.”
Before the world knew, Kenworthy told his family, best friends and his agent. He built up the worst-case scenario. If everybody else left him -- sponsors, fans, fellow skiers -- he knew he could count on that close support group.
So on the morning of Oct. 22, 2015, Kenworthy was at the home of two close friends as his news aired on ESPN and ran online. His brother and sister-in-law came over for breakfast, too.
He posted. Then, he cried.
“Instant relief,” he said. “All this weight off my shoulders.”
Such overwhelming support that Kenworthy could not unlock his phone because of the stream of notifications.
“I still get messages every day, like I wanted to say how much your article meant to me. It helped me come out,” Kenworthy said. “It’s the one thing I’m most proud of.”
Now, Kenworthy is one of the marquee names going into the PyeongChang Winter Games.
He picked up zero Olympic sponsors leading up to Sochi. In the last eight days alone, he announced deals with Visa and Ralph Lauren.
Kenworthy, even though he is arguably the world’s best freeskier, acknowledges coming out helped with that.
“I am more marketable now as an out athlete,” he said. “Every brand is looking for diversity. It’s more important for brands to have diversity than it ever has been in the past.
“Since coming out, I’m definitely, like, the gay skier now. I knew I was stepping into that role when I did it. It’s like, in some ways I don’t really care if that’s the label that sticks because I very much am the gay skier.”
Kenworthy is comfortable in the spotlight.
He has been quoted calling Anderson Cooper “a father figure” after appearing on his New Year’s Eve special. His dream is to host “Saturday Night Live.” He said he made out with Miley Cyrus one month after Sochi.
Last Saturday night, the kid who grew up in a small Colorado ski town was a co-host at the Global Citizen Festival. The concert draws more than 50,000 people annually to New York City’s Central Park.
Other presenters included Hugh Jackman, Demi Lovato and Lupita Nyong’o.
“Walking up the side of the stage, looking up and seeing the New York skyline behind the park,” remembered Kenworthy, who now splits time between Brooklyn and Colorado. “I’m from a town of 2,000 people. My high school class had 48 kids in it. So, I had never seen people like that. … That’s the impact, in part, the Olympics has, because I never would have been there without it.”
Kenworthy has been a world-class freeskier for six years. He’s the only man with podium credentials in halfpipe and slopestyle.
As far as gold goes, the wait has been long. Kenworthy earned silver medals at the Olympics, world championships and X Games Aspen, but never a title.
“I have the LGBT audience watching me, and I want to do right by them,” Kenworthy said. “There’s all these people I want to do right by, including myself. I think it puts a little pressure on, but it’s good pressure. … It’s a motivator.”
When Kenworthy came out in 2015, he was mounting a comeback from a reported torn MCL and meniscus and surgery to repair a broken femur. And from contemplating retirement after missing the halfpipe and slopestyle podiums at the 2015 X Games. (Kenworthy also thought about giving up skiing after his best friend died in a ski accident when he was 14 years old.)
After coming out, Kenworthy won his first contest, reportedly on his ninth day on snow post-surgery. A month later, Kenworthy captured his first X Games Aspen medals, silvers in halfpipe and slopestyle.
That was big.
X Games meant so much to Kenworthy that, before he came out, he threw up on the chair lift at the event, Olympic teammate Bobby Brown told ESPN.com.
“I had a long time where I would qualify first or second at X Games, always, and then fall every run in the finals,” Kenworthy said. “The pressure got to me. I couldn’t handle it. I don’t know if it’s because I was in the closet that I couldn’t compete, but I think it was something that was ever-present in my mind. It was always distracting.”
This past January, Kenworthy tumbled to 10th in both halfpipe and slopestyle at X Games.
He rebounded for slopestyle silver at worlds, but the Olympic favorites now appear to be Aaron Blunck in halfpipe and McRae Williams in slopestyle.
“It wasn’t a bad season by any means, but I think I struggled more than past seasons,” Kenworthy told NBC Olympic Research in May. “It was a little bit of a tough pill to swallow, but I think I ended on a strong note, feel pretty good about my skiing at the moment.”
Kenworthy hoped to make the Sochi Olympic team in halfpipe and slopestyle but was passed over in the former for the last of four U.S. spots.
He’s trying again this winter. If he could choose one over the other, it would be halfpipe.
“If and when I make the team I will be very much freed up to enjoy it,” Kenworthy said, “more so than I was in the past.”
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