PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Coming into the 2018 Olympics, skier Gus Kenworthy had a couple goals. Win some gold, of course. But also: find Adam Rippon, the openly gay skater who had criticized the values and anti-LGBT stance of Vice President Mike Pence, and had drawn the vice president’s ire as a result.
“I was dying to meet him at the Opening Ceremony,” Kenworthy said on Sunday, several days before he was scheduled to hit the slopes. “We met on Instagram and Twitter, and we’ve been texting, being super-supportive of each other.”
Kenworthy found Rippon in the staging area just prior to walking in the Opening Ceremony, and the two shared a laugh and a selfie. And then Kenworthy, who has proudly accepted the mantle of gay Olympian since coming out in 2015, decided to draw a line in the sand:
“I feel incredibly honored to be here in Korea competing for the US and I’m so proud to be representing the LGBTQ community alongside this amazing guy!” Kenworthy wrote. “Eat your heart out, Pence.”
It was the latest in a 28-month run of proud, defiant, pro-gay statements from the Sochi silver medalist, who’s done hiding who he really is. And while “Eat your heart out, Pence” has elicited the predictable fake outrage from all the usual performatively offended parties, Kenworthy doesn’t worry about hurt feelings; he’s got higher aims in mind.
“For anyone who says, ‘Who cares if you’re gay, it’s 2018,’ well — a lot of people care,” Kenworthy says. “A lot of people have had to wait for their careers to end to be out and there’s been a lot of fear surrounding it. This is the first time we’re seeing that [at the Winter Olympics], and it is a big deal. Eventually it won’t be.”
Kenworthy won what he calls an unexpected silver medal at Sochi in 2014. The next year, weary of a lifetime of hiding his true self, he came out, knowing full well he was risking both the scorn of friends and family and the loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars from heavily image-conscious sponsors.
But as it turned out, the opposite occurred. Finally at peace with himself, Kenworthy could make peace with those around him. And it showed on the slopes, as his already strong performance rocketed into the stratosphere. The year after he came out, he didn’t miss a single podium. He’s cooled a touch since that hot streak, but he still feels more ready than he ever was when he wasn’t out.
“I’m skiing well, I’m feeling well, and I can attribute a lot of that to coming out and feeling at ease with myself and who I am,” he says. “Being in the closet is really hard. It takes a toll on your mind, it takes a toll on you.”
And yes, Kenworthy is aware that there are plenty of people who wonder why gay athletes need to be so, well … out. Kenworthy’s thinking is, if you’re still asking that question, you’re not the person he’s trying to reach.
“For straight people, it’s sometimes hard to understand why it’s important [for gay athletes to be public about their sexuality]. It’s 2018, and you may be tolerant, and that’s great,” he says. “But any gay person, whether they’re out or not, has lived with shame and dealt with shame. It’s something you have to get past and then feel confident enough to come out.”
Of course, being confident is only half the battle. You still have to deal with the blowback, and in these hyper-politicized times, Kenworthy’s just added a horde of pro-Pence critics to the usual anti-LGBT contingent. He concedes that he checks his replies “more than I should,” but says there’s a higher purpose in mind.
“I have a lot of people that reach out to me that are in the closet, that are coming out or recently came out or are struggling with it,” he says. “I always try to get back with them.”
As for the haters? Hell with ‘em. “A lesson I’ve learned is that anyone who’s trying to cut you down is already below you,” Kenworthy says. “I’m pretty proud of what I’ve accomplished. I’m here at the Olympics. Not that many people get to do that, so as a gay man that makes me feel amazing. Anyone that feels the need to come to my page and send me a message is dealing with a lot of their own insecurities. I don’t care so much.”
Questions about Kenworthy’s stances dominated a press conference that was supposed to be for the entire eight-member Team USA freeski/slopestyle team, and Kenworthy talked to reporters for another 20 minutes afterward. “I spent 24 years in the closet wanting to talk about it and not being able to,” he smiles, “so having a couple years where I talk about it too much is just fine with me.”
What’s also interesting—coming from the American pro sports perspective that anything outside the game is an unwanted “distraction”—is how Team USA has accepted Kenworthy’s higher profile. “With him in particular, I feel like he enjoys [the spotlight] quite a bit, he thrives on it,” Team USA coach Skogen Sprang says. “For him I don’t get too worried on it. He’s in a great position to capitalize on [his higher profile], and he performs well under pressure.”
He’ll get that chance in just a few days, attacking the halfpipe and slopestyle events with the hopes of adding to that Sochi silver. But even if he walks away from PyeongChang with a fistful of gold, Kenworthy knows he’s got a higher purpose beyond these Games.
“Winning feels so good, but it’s very short-lived,” he says. “But when someone comes up to me and tells me that my story has helped them in any way, I feel like that’s more than I could have ever done as a skier. I always said if [coming out] could help one person I’d feel great, and I think it’s helped a lot more than that.”