In 2015, Gus Kenworthy was 24-years old, fresh-faced, and a competitive freeskier. Beyond an Olympic silver medal earned in Sochi, he was perhaps best known for a puppy rescue and curious Miley Cyrus rumor. He struggled with revealing his sexuality, concealing the truth to his fellow athletes, as his boyfriend stood in a crowd cheering him on. After a World Cup injury that left him bed-ridden with a torn MCL, he knew something had to change–in October of that year, he publicly came out in a cover story with ESPN, with the headline: “Is Being the Best in the World Enough to be Accepted?”
After sponsorships with the likes Nike and Ralph Lauren, guest-stints on network television shows, and 600,000 followers on Instagram hanging on every word (and ab), being the best made him a good athlete. Being honest, however, made him an icon.
In just two short years, how exactly does an individual go from a second-place finisher to a genuine hero?
Unknowingly at the time, Kenworthy suddenly became an underdog in the eyes of others. Coming out in the face of remarks like “skier fag” revealed just how much he had to lose by exposing himself to his competitors.
“Freeskiing is such a macho sport. I feel like I couldn’t show my true self,” Kenworthy says in Proctor & Gamble’s newest ‘Thank You, Mom’ campaign, in a video shared exclusively with Men’s Journal. His struggle, however, resonated with the entire country.
“I get messages daily–kids, men, women–saying how important my coming out journey was for their own experience,” he told us. “It gave them someone to relate to and made it easier for them to accept themselves.”
But how much of it is Kenworthy, rather than what he has come to represent? Boyish, bearded, and often with expertly tousled hair, Kenworthy has become a social media pinup. No stranger to allowing strangers to set eyes on his torso—and in last year’s ESPN body issue, sometimes a little more—he can draw attention on the basis of his looks, and then beliefs, and occasionally in that order. (“Breathe out and flex,” he tells us, advice in achieving a successful shirtless photo). Kenworthy often succeeds on social media because it allows him to communicate in sound bytes; we may never know Kenworthy beyond a caption, but it’s often a perfectly tailored one.
“I stress out over Instagram. Whether I should post a photo, what it means, the caption, how people will interpret it. You’ll always rub people the wrong way, but I love sharing my life with people.”
With a supportive relationship with his family (“My mom and I are closer than ever”) and a public relationship with actor Matthew Wilkas (“People are excited to see your relationship and feel part of it. But there’s pressure since you want things to work out and show that it’s happy and healthy”) his struggle became the aspirational coming out experience, awarded with money, fame and literal awards. While not a real battle for others in the LGBT community, it was a struggle no less and on a platform rarely given. His qualification this weekend secures his presence at Pyeongchang and means he’ll be one of two openly gay men to compete at the Winter Olympics, witnessed by countries where LGBT acceptance is virtually absent. (The other is figure skater Adam Rippon; both came out in October 2015.)
“Seeing gay people do things they wouldn’t be expected to do changes perceptions,” he says, “There are people that are persecuted for it around the world and the only way to change that landscape is through representation.”
Visibility is one thing. Being broadcast into the homes of billions is, to put it mildly, quite another.
Now at a peak in his career, Kenworthy has an incredible amount to gain in Pyeongchang, like gold for the first time, and a whole lot more to lose, as in, an entire reputation. A social media personality, an icon, and a silver-medalist, Kenworthy has arguably done more by coming out than on any single ski run. Does he have anything left to prove at the Olympics, perhaps the greatest opportunity he’s had thus far? “I just want to show the world what a being a gay athlete means, which isn’t any different,” he says with a pause, “Like Adam Rippon says, it’s like being a straight athlete–only with better eyebrows.”