Gus Kenworthy needed to leave an impression. On his first run of the 2014 Sochi slope-style finals, the Colorado free-skier had whiffed on his last jump, grazing the snow and nearly falling. So, for a chance to medal, he had to ace all the rails and land his biggest tricks without so much as a wobble. On his second run, he handled the features with grace, then finished with an immaculate switch triple rodeo 1440 Japan, a move few people in the world had landed. He clinched silver, helping the U.S. sweep the podium in the sport’s Olympic debut.
The American ski team grabbed headlines, but by that point Kenworthy was already a media favorite. Earlier in the week, he had rescued five puppies from Sochi’s booming stray population, prompting Huffington Post to declare him “our favorite Olympian.”
Four years later, however, Kenworthy is no longer best known for his medal or for the dogs but for coming out as gay, on the cover of ESPN the Magazine, in 2015. “Being in the closet is torturous,” Kenworthy says. “I feel so much better about who I am now, and how I ski. There’s this confidence that came with it.”
Kenworthy feared he might lose sponsors, and even friends, by coming out. But to his surprise, the move only bolstered his career. He scored sponsorship deals from Visa, Toyota, and 24 Hour Fitness. He made an appearance on Conan and was photographed skiing nude for another ESPN story. In the lead-up to Pyeongchang, he’s serving as a spokesperson for United Airlines and stars in a new Procter & Gamble ad about athletes overcoming bias. More than a half-million people now follow his Instagram account, where he regularly posts ski pics and shirtless selfies.
Though Kenworthy’s profile has risen since Sochi, his ski career has suffered disappointments. He had his most successful season to date in 2015–2016, winning four X Games medals. Last season, however, he fell in both the X Games Norway and the X Games Aspen, faltering on tricks he’d nailed years prior. He did snag a silver medal at the 2017 World Championships, but now, at age 26, he’ll be one of the older Olympians. “It’s not impossible to have a breakthrough season,” he says. “But to have breakthrough seasons over and over, it’s difficult for everybody.”
Kenworthy’s strengths as a skier are his creativity on new courses and his elegant, unhurried style. “He’s always been great at finding a feature that no one’s really touching,” says Luke Van Valin, a former free-skier and Olympics commentator. “He’ll bring some trick that’s totally unforeseen, and that immediately sets him apart from the pack.”
This fall, in preparation for the Games, Kenworthy attended an elite training camp on a glacier in Zermatt, Switzerland, and perfected a dream trick, a double-cork 1440 on his nondominant side. “It felt really unnatural and uncomfortable,” he says. “It was a huge relief to land it and feel good about it. I’m actually really psyched.”
In a way, Kenworthy is in a similar situation to the one he faced on that clutch second run in Sochi. His performance has been inconsistent lately, but he still has a chance to medal, if he can pull it together for the judges. “Most of the time, when he lands what he’s going for,” Skogen Sprang, U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association free-skiing coach, says, “he ends up on the podium.”