GANGNEUNG, South Korea — Whoosh forward in the bobsled of your imagination to the 2038 Winter Olympics, and wonder: Will this scene from this past Wednesday even be viable? Will there be two gay dudes out on some Olympic Park in 2038, sitting in abutting chairs, relaying their Olympic experiences for NBC’s “Today” show? Will people wearing a nation’s gear, in this case the United States, happen by and gaze on and burble speculation such as, “That’s that figure skater? What’s the other one do?” Will one of the two guys answer some question about his mother and exclaim audibly across part of the park, as did Adam Rippon, “No worries, Mom! I’ve got you covered, girl! Thanks, Kelly! Love you!”
One thing does stand certain already for 2038: No two Americans ever again will become the first out, gay, competing Winter Olympians. That matter has been adjudicated. The winners are Rippon, the 28-year-old figure skater born in Scranton, Pa., and Gus Kenworthy, the 26-year-old freestyle skier born in Chelmsford, England, then transported to Colorado at age adorably 2.
“It can be a black guy, an Asian guy, a lesbian, a gay skater, anything in the world,” Kenworthy said, after the duo repaired to NBC’s “Green Room” hut for a dual interview with The Washington Post. “Anyone can be exactly who they want to be, and I think that more people will realize that and, in 20 years, it’s going to be like a complete rainbow . . .
“Mess,” Rippon said.
“In 20 years,” Kenworthy said, “the ‘Today’ show [interview] won’t even be a thing.”
“No,” Rippon chimed in.
“It’s going to be the ‘Yesterday’ show,” Kenworthy said.
Of course, all that came just after the 2038 subject began, and Kenworthy said, “I’m going to be one of the older people in the field at that point,” whereupon Rippon said, “Oh, I’ll still be around for sure; I’m just, like, so young and in my prime,” whereupon several people around the room laughed, whereupon Rippon looked back toward Kenworthy’s mother and said, “What are you laughing at, Pip?”
For now, you almost have to wear SPF30 to avoid burn from the glow of the duo. They’re clearly embedded with their fresh layers of authenticity, so they’re uncommonly alive. They’re two men born 3,521 miles apart, then linked as Olympics do best, then flung into friendship and adept repartee by some biological quirk common to more than 1,500 species. They have learned some things here, with learning always a foremost province of Olympics.
They have learned about other gay athletes and coaches, because a trickle of those athletes and coaches have approached them to say thanks. Asked of an estimate of how many, Kenworthy began with “60” and then said, “I was kidding,” after which Rippon said, “I was like, Oh, my. . . ”
“I had two athletes and a coach come up to me,” Kenworthy said. “And Adam had . . .
“I had a coach,” Rippon said.
The grateful sorts varied in nationality. The coach who approached Kenworthy hailed from an Asian country where homosexuality is not criminalized but also not accepted generally. The two Americans realize that while their country has lagged behind a batch of others in legal recognition, its First Amendment has not. They’re grateful for the reach of their voices, but more so, they’re athletes, and so Kenworthy said, “I think that with all athletes, there is a mutual respect for one another, because we understand what it takes to get to this place. So before even meeting Adam, I just inherently had a lot of admiration and respect for him, and then I met him and it all went away, but . . . ”
Several people laughed.
They have learned — in a bold, new, public way — how much energy they had been expending and exhausting and wasting in the tortured art of hiding. Kenworthy, a silver medalist in the men’s slopestyle freestyle skiing while closeted at Sochi in 2014, finished 12th here; Rippon won a team bronze medal and finished 10th in the men’s individual figure skating, and he emerged as a champion of levity when he impossibly pulled off with charm this quotation: “I think one thing I want people to come away [with] from this competition is that I’m not like a gay icon and I’m not America’s gay sweetheart. I’m America’s sweetheart and I’m an icon.”
Almost magically, both found the simple act of competing less onerous. Said Rippon, “I think you spend so much time worrying about what other people think about, that you realize that you had all of this extra energy that you didn’t need to be using. And, you know, I think straight people never have this experience of coming out. And it’s such a life-changing moment that you become so strong. I gained so much power and strength from that moment.”
“And I agree with what he said about it being effortless,” Kenworthy said, “because when I was in the closet, it was so [pause] much [pause] effort to stay in the closet and constantly worrying, and fearing I was going to fall asleep before the other guys on my team and say something in my sleep, or anything. I was just, all the time, always nervous that I was going to out myself, that someone was going to find out, and it was this horrible, horrible thing. And now that I’m out, and I realize how great it is, and I’m just getting to enjoy my life, I feel like I just feel free and liberated and I’m competing better, interviews, anything, I just get to be myself, and it’s a strange thing to be thanked for that, but it’s also amazing.”
Rippon: “It’s like the greatest gift I think we’ve given ourselves.”
Kenworthy: “Aw, good, the Whitney’s on.”
Rippon: “Yeah, thanks Whitney. And Bobby and Kristina. The whole Houston family, actually, thank you.”
Together, they have taken the long-built bridge between “gay” and “weak,” and treated it to a fresh sledgehammer.
“In terms of it making you weak,” Kenworthy said, “I almost feel like in a lot of ways it probably makes you stronger, because you’ve had this internal battle for so much of your life.”
“I feel so much stronger since coming out,” Rippon said. “Like, yeah. Like, now I’m the fully actualized monster I’m supposed to be.”
Both have learned something strange about the way they approached their athletic lives. They recall feeling that if they didn’t finish at No. 1 or hold down a No. 1 ranking, they could not legitimize themselves as human beings enough to overcome their barely acceptable realities. They went even to the somber extent of plotting their comings-out around their utmost prowess.
“For myself,” Kenworthy said, “when I came out [in 2015], I felt like I needed to be the best, because that was what I thought it would take to be accepted. No one can talk s--- on you if you’re the No. 1 ranked in the world, and so that’s what my whole thing was, and so I made sure that the season before I came out, I was the No. 1-ranked guy in the world, and that was how I wanted to come out. Because I felt like, ‘You can’t argue with that.’ But in the end, no one was trying to argue with it anyway.”
“I actually feel exactly the same,” Rippon said, “where I made sure that when I came out, I was skating very well, so that I would be taken seriously. And after I came out, I won my national title, and . . .
Rippon: “Thank you so much. You’re, like, two years late, but, like, I wasn’t waiting for that.”
Kenworthy: “Happy belated . . . ”
They have found their fellow athletes “overwhelmingly supportive,” Kenworthy said, even as “there’s always going to be a few people who are against you in these areas regardless of whether it’s in sports or not and at this Games.” That figures to be true, still, in 2038, way out there in the future, of which Rippon spoke.
“You know, I think that right now, I think Gus and I are sort of pegged as ‘the gay Olympians,’ ” he said. “And I think, at the end of the day, that we’re just Olympians. And I think we’re ‘gay Olympians,’ and the next gay Olympians will just be called Olympians, and I think that’s what we really hope, that it won’t be a story. It shouldn’t be a story, but, you know, right now, it is, and I think that people recognize that it is, but I hope that in 2038, that those ‘out’ athletes on the team, that nobody’s interested in that story because it’s old news and everybody is comfortable to be themselves.”