The night before he told the world he was gay, Gus Kenworthy couldn’t sleep. He kept imagining everything that he’d spent years building was about to come crashing down. He worried he’d lose friends, fans, sponsors and opportunities.
The next morning, the news spread quickly across the Internet that an Olympic medalist was coming out of the closet and Kenworthy braced himself.
“I remember, like, my fingers trembling when I went to post what I had written and post the link to the article and post the photo saying I was gay. And I was so scared,” he recalled recently. “And it was like instant relief. All this weight off my shoulders.”
He was in tears as his phone started lighting up with texts, phone calls and social media notifications. He couldn’t even read the messages because they were coming in too fast. But they were all supportive.
“I’m just like a wreck, crying because I felt so much love,” he said. “I’d built myself up for the worst-case scenario.”
Two years have passed, and Kenworthy is preparing for his second Olympics. The freestyle skier is still the only action sports star to come out and will be one of only a few openly gay athletes on the U.S. Olympic team next month. Not only does Kenworthy have zero regrets, but his career, his platform and his brand have taken off.
He entered the Sochi Games as a relative unknown. Even afterward, he was recognized more for adopting stray dogs in Russia than for his silver medal in the slopestyle event.
He still has to qualify, but he’ll probably enter the PyeongChang Olympics next month as a star — not just a podium regular but a champion of the LGBT community who’s featured in shampoo commercials, who’s outspoken on political issues and whose profile suddenly transcends that of his sport.
“I’m definitely, like, ‘the gay skier’ now,” he said, “and that’s fine. I knew I was stepping into that role when I did it. I, in some ways, don’t care that that’s the label that sticks because I am the gay skier, and I know that I took the step to come out publicly and decided to wear that badge proudly.”
More than anyone, Kenworthy is surprised at how this has all played out, how coming out of the closet actually improved his performances in both the halfpipe and slopestyle events, how friends buoyed him and his fan base grew, and how sponsors came out of the woodwork to sign him up.
He had a handful of small deals in Sochi, but he’ll head to PyeongChang with corporate backing like few others with several big-name companies on board, including Visa, Toyota, United, Procter & Gamble, Ralph Lauren, Chobani, Samsung and Deloitte. Kenworthy being gay didn’t scare them away; it only seemed to make him a more attractive spokesman.
“I think all these brands want to tell my story, and my story isn’t just the story of an athlete,” he explained. “It’s not just the story of competing and doing well. It’s battling in the closet and other things that I had to deal with as a kid. I don’t think that should be the sole focus, and I don’t think that skiing should be the only focus. I think that all those things are things that made me who I am.”
It wasn’t long ago that the corporate world might have shied away from a gay man. Athletes have historically been used in the advertising world to project masculinity, strength and success. Kenworthy represents those things and so much more.
“We’re in a new time in terms of sponsorships,” said Tim Calkins, a professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management who specializes in branding and marketing. “You go back, and maybe some athletes said they lost sponsorships because they came out. The thing that’s important right now is companies are really embracing this.
“Partly, he is a great athlete. But now he’s also unique and differentiated. I think sponsors have said diversity is important, and here we have an athlete who brings together three things: athletic achievement, an endearing personality and the ability to make a statement about diversity.”
Michael Spencer, Kenworthy’s agent, said all of Kenworthy’s existing sponsors immediately expressed support and he started lining up meetings with other companies that wanted to partner with his 26-year-old client. They didn’t all sign deals right away, many waiting until the Olympics were closer.
“Everything kind of lined up,” Spencer said. “He won an Olympic medal, he saved the dogs, he comes out, and then he ends up winning everything that year. People were really genuinely excited to be a part of it, like, ‘There’s something here, and we can tell a story with [Kenworthy] that’s different, that hasn’t been told’ — particularly in the ski world. It’s not like skiing and snowboarding — you can go way back, you’re not going to find much diversity.”
While these partnerships certainly make Kenworthy’s Olympic pursuit more lucrative, he’s hoping the visibility helps others. He thinks about how his life would be different if he’d been a young skier and saw an openly gay competitor winning on the sport’s biggest stage.
“That would have given me so much hope,” he says. “I think it would have saved me so much heartache.”
Instead, he grew up in the sport and believed he had to keep his sexuality a secret. Close friends and Olympic teammates had no idea, and Kenworthy said he believed he had to hide an important part of his identity from the media, from the tightknit freestyle world and even from those closest to him.
“I think we all knew Gus was maybe holding something back,” said freestyle skier Joss Christensen, “not really sure what.”
It was a burden Kenworthy carried into competitions, something he believed was impacting his results. Kenworthy would perform better in early qualification rounds than he did in the finals, where the lights were brighter and more eyes were focused on him. Back then, sharing his secret with the world felt impossible.
“I just didn’t picture another life for myself,” he says. “I thought that’s kind of how it had to be, and after skiing was done, I’d be able to have a boyfriend, have a husband, be out, be proud — but it was going to be after everything else. I was just, like, give my career a few more years, and I can go be me.
“It just got to a point where the pain of lying and holding on to it and always feeling like I was avoiding answers and not really ever being myself was just so painful. And even though I was terrified of coming out and what it could mean and how it could be bad, I thought it was more difficult staying in the closet at that point.”
The weight instantly lifted, he said, and Kenworthy began skiing better. He shared his news in an ESPN The Magazine story in October 2015, and that season turned out to be his best. He won the slopestyle event at the Dew Tour and then halfpipe at the Grand Prix in Mammoth Lakes, Calif. He reached the podium in both events at the X Games in Aspen, Colo., and left no doubt that’d he’d be a double-medal threat in PyeongChang.
“His confidence is through the roof, and you can tell in his skiing,” said Christensen, who won gold in slopestyle at the Sochi Games. “He’s had really amazing results. But for us, I think nothing has changed. . . . Nobody really sees him in a different light now. I think we just have a lot more respect and he’s just a bigger and better athlete.”
Kenworthy said he’s clearly not the same skier or person as the 22-year-old who took silver in Sochi. That younger, closeted version of himself was proud of what he accomplished but also scared of the attention it brought.
“I look at photos of the Sochi Olympics — even though it sometimes seems like it was just yesterday — that photo doesn’t even look like me. It looks a like a child,” he said. “I don’t even recognize myself.”
Without the fear of his sexuality being discovered, Kenworthy said, he’s more present when he’s competing and more emboldened when he’s not. In interviews and on social media, he doesn’t feel the need to hide any longer or filter his views. He openly discusses gun control, politics and issues important to the LGBT community.
While many Olympic hopefuls shy away from controversy, Kenworthy has been adamant that he’d never visit the White House with President Trump in office. While corporate America and Kenworthy’s corner of the sports world have proved to be accepting of a high-profile gay athlete, he believes there are parts of the country that haven’t shown the same tolerance, and Kenworthy said he feels “quite victimized under the current administration.”
“I don’t think I’m competing for the administration. I think I’m competing for our country,” he said. “I love our country. I love that our country is one where you have the freedom to protest and to stand up for what you believe in and speak on it. I think, maybe more so than ever, I want to do well for our country — to be an out, gay person who does well for the U.S., despite everything that’s happening in our country.”
While competing when he was in the closet wasn’t easy, there’s a new pressure that accompanies him to PyeongChang, as Kenworthy is still getting accustomed to the spotlight, to the legions of gay and lesbian fans who are suddenly following his journey and to the added scrutiny all of this brings. Still, he said he’s not fearful that his sexuality might overshadow his athletic pursuits. The visibility is important, and he’s just happy that this time around he can share his full story with the world.
“Even if you’re ‘the gay guy’ — if you’re winning events, you’re still winning events,” he said.