Gus Kenworthy’s phone wouldn’t work.
The device, held in his trembling, shaking hands a few minutes earlier as he shared the most deeply personal part of himself that he had held secret for so, so long, had been rendered completely useless: The avalanche of Tweets, texts, calls, emails and Instagram messages had frozen it.
“Today is the first day of the rest of my life,” Kenworthy had tweeted when he woke up that morning.
And then, the tweet that broke the Internet… and his phone: “I am gay.”
It was Oct. 22, 2015, and Kenworthy’s ESPN The Magazine coming out cover story was finally hitting newsstands and the web. He had met with reporter Alyssa Roenigk over a month earlier for the interview, had come out to his family and agent and close friends in the weeks since, but this was the biggest day of Kenworthy’s life up to that point, the day that the magazine made public a dark secret he had hidden so deep inside of himself that no Olympic glory could do for him what he had to do himself, utter those three words: I am gay.
“I remember trembling before the article came out. I didn’t sleep at all the night before,” Kenworthy, now 26, told a group of reporters at the Team USA Media Summit two weeks ago.
“I wanted to make a big impact and I wanted to help as many kids as possible, but it was really scary,” he continued. “The morning the article came out I remember my fingers trembling to post what I had written and post the link to the article saying that I was gay. I was so scared, and then it was like instant relief; all this weight off my shoulders. I was crying as soon as I posted it.”
Kenworthy isn’t the first noteworthy male athlete to come out publicly. Soccer star Robbie Rogers did it. Then the NBA’s Jason Collins on the cover of Sports Illustrated, with Michael Sam and Derrick Gordon following in the college ranks.
But the marked importance of the coming out of Kenworthy is that he is the first in the world of the X Games and high-flying snow sports, which will be on full display at the Olympic Winter Games in February in PyeongChang, South Korea, where Kenworthy hopes to be competing after his Sochi success.
The Colorado native, by the way, is a world-class freestyle skier in the halfpipe and slopestyle disciplines. He won the silver medal in Sochi in slopestyle (part of an American podium sweep in the event’s Olympic debut there), then became a media darling by adopting several stray Russian puppies and bringing them back home. He also named Miley Cyrus his Valentine crush that Olympics.
He was still in the closet.
But being in the closet was eating at Kenworthy. He wasn’t being true to his teammates, to the guys that he traveled all over the world with and shared hotel rooms with and competed alongside at the world championships and Olympic Games. He had devised a plan of coming out, telling those who were close to him, and then – if the sport and his sponsors and the whole ski community turned their backs on him – he’d have what’s most important to him: The truth.
And then, he came out.
Gus Kenworthy competes in the men's ski slopestyle qualification at the Olympic Winter Games Sochi 2014 on Feb. 13, 2014 in Rosa Khutor, Russia.
“I was really proud of watching Gus come out,” said Torin Yater-Wallace, a fellow Olympian with Kenworthy in 2014 and friend for a decade. “That’s severely difficult to deal with your entire life. When Gus came out in such a public manner, to a lot of us it was a great surprise. He kept it extremely hidden his entire career and I can only imagine that that’s really difficult to do. I have no way to relate. I don’t think I can wrap my head around it, but I’m extremely proud of him.”
The reaction was much the same throughout the sport: The support poured in, Kenworthy getting those aforementioned texts and calls and Tweets and messages from friends and competitors who had “no idea.” Some apologized for calling him gay. Some apologized for using the word gay in front of them. Some admitted to using the word gay in a negative context at some point and just, well, wanted to come clean to Kenworthy.
Mostly, however, they said they cared for him and supported him, which – along with words of encouragement from Cyrus herself, Ricky Martin, Jason Collins, actresses Ellen Page, Chloë Grace Moretz and many, many other influencers – caused Kenworthy to crumble. In a good way.
“I was a wreck,” Kenworthy said, laughing as he recalled that October morning. “I was crying because I was feeling so much love. I had built myself up for the worst-case scenario, being like, ‘Even if everyone leaves me, I’ve told my family and friends and all of these people who were so supportive and – if no one else is – that’s all I need.’ … I had a lot of love and support from other skiers, people posting the (magazine) cover and stuff. It was so surreal.
“I felt so appreciated, so loved. There are naysayers and there are things that I have heard that haven’t been that supportive, but generally the majority of everyone has been supportive to me. … There’s a level of camaraderie that other sports don’t have, and I was worried that I was going to disrupt that by coming out. I didn’t want people to think that I had been lying to them this whole time, but I think it was important for them to know that this was a big thing for me and had nothing to do with anyone else.”
There was hate, too, but mostly online. Kenworthy would sometimes try to engage with them only to have them not respond or – perplexingly – have them ask why he had blocked them when he decided to do so. His list of blocked accounts on social media is now very long, and he knows there is still a lot of work to be done to continue to spread the impact of his story. His work isn’t finished.
That’s why, as the Olympics now sit less than four months away, Kenworthy is embracing his role as “the gay skier.” He’s signed a plethora of Olympic sponsors, done more interviews than he can count, hosted events, walked red carpets and become the face of the LGBT community for the Winter Olympics. None of which he asked for, but none of which he minds, either.
“I’m definitely ‘the gay skier’ now,” Kenworthy said. “In some ways I don’t care that that’s the label that sticks because I very much am the gay skier and I know that and I took the steps to come out publicly and decided to wear that badge proudly. I’m so glad that I did because my life has been so much better since that.”
“I think it’s really important to have visibility, especially in sports,” he went on. “It helps get rid of homophobia. I think having people in the public eye allows other people to feel more comfortable to live authentically. I think it’s a good thing. Of course, sometimes it’s polarizing and overshadowing, but I also think that your skiing performance speaks for itself, so I think if you’re doing well, even if you’re labeled as ‘the gay guy’… if you’re still winning events then you’re still winning events.”
And Kenworthy has been winning events. He was on the podium twice each at X Games events in Aspen, Colorado, and Oslo, Norway, last year, and at the world championships this March in Sierra Nevada, Spain, he won the silver medal in slopestyle. He will try to qualify this upcoming season for both halfpipe and slopestyle at the Olympics, having been left off the 2014 Olympic team for halfpipe under coaches’ discretion, his good friend Yater-Wallace getting the nod instead.
Now OK with the label of “the gay skier,” Kenworthy says coming out has freed him up at competitions. No longer is he burdened by something he hasn’t shared with the rest of the world, or spending time or energy during events thinking about who might find out – or trying how to hide who he is. That’s all in the past. This is a new Gus.
“There was this period where I would qualify in first at the X Games and then I would fall in the finals. The pressure got to me; I couldn’t handle it,” he said. “(Being in the closet) was something that was ever-present in my mind. It was always distracting. I had to learn how to compartmentalize, which I think took me out of the moment a little bit. I think being out, being myself and being more authentic I was able to ski better at these events. The first event after coming out, I was also coming off of an injury and I ended up winning the event. I skied to the bottom of the course and there were people with rainbow flags. I just thought, ‘Wow, that’s amazing.’”
Amazing, indeed. Kenworthy now skies for those scores of fans in the greater LGBT community, including the diehard freestyle skiing fans and the ones that – well – just follow it for Kenworthy.
“I have a lot more eyeballs on me since coming out… I have a bigger platform,” he explained. “I have the LGBT audience watching me and I want to do right by them. Some of them are diehard fans and some of them are fans of me because I’m a gay athlete, but they might not follow the sport closely. They might expect me to do well, but if I don’t do well then they’re not sure why. They might not understand that there are all these other amazing competitors from other countries, so there are so many people that I want to do right by, including myself. It puts a little pressure on me, yes, but it’s a good pressure.”
Pressure too as an athlete with a bevy of sponsors. Before Sochi in 2014, Kenworthy had no commercial Olympic deals. This year? A whole fistful of recognizable brand names. He takes their support as an endorsement of his coming out story, which many companies having chosen to focus on in their ad campaigns.
“I’m actually glad that they are focusing on that because it is part of me and visibility is what really helps deteriorate homophobia and break down walls and barriers,” he said. “If there is a huge company… that wants to put a campaign behind a gay athlete, I think that’s so friggin’ cool. The focus should be on diversity. We shouldn’t just be looking at straight, white, American kids… there is so much more out there. The U.S. is a melting pot, so I think it’s exciting to market to all of those different kinds of people.”
National champion figure skater and fellow Olympic hopeful Adam Rippon came out just a few months before Kenworthy in 2015, and though he says his sexuality is almost taboo in his sport, he commends Kenworthy for taking on what he has in a whole different sporting world.
“I have so much respect for him because he came out in a sport where it’s harder for him,” Rippon said. “Being the first person to do anything in life is really scary, and Gus was the first person in his sport to do so, and in the entire X Games community really. I think he’s an incredible athlete and a wonderful activist. I’ve followed his story since he came out. I don’t know him personally, but he’s gay family now.”
In turn, Kenworthy has made his colleagues and the sport as a whole aware of that extended gay family, and – in part – accidental allies of it. They’re now aware of what phrases like “that’s so gay” can mean to someone they know – or don’t.
“With Gus coming out… honestly, I think it’s made everyone a better person,” Yater-Wallace said of the elite U.S. freeskiing scene. “You don’t say that stuff. It’s only right. You shouldn’t be saying it in the first place, and now we have reason to be even better.”
Better, too, has the whole experience made Kenworthy. First an athlete, then an Olympian, now a gay athlete hoping to make it back to the Olympics. He doesn’t regret a second of it, and – he hopes – his story helps others, just as those who came before him helped in his process.
“I’ll get stopped in New York, I’ll get messages on my Instagram… I still get messages every day saying, ‘Hey, your article meant so much to me,’ or ‘Your coming out helped me so much,’” he said. “It gives me hope. It really is very, very nice. It makes me feel that, of everything that I’ve done in my life, (coming out is) what I’m most proud of because I think it’s helped people and it’s not just been self-serving. The Olympics were great and they were great for me, but (this has) helped other people so much.”
And, on National Coming Out Day, it’s Kenworthy who gets a gold medal. Well, at least a rainbow-tinged one.