Gus Kenworthy, a free skier who has competed in the Winter Olympics and numerous X Games, has just come out as gay in an interview with ESPN.
The 24-year-old Colorado native is the first major extreme sports star to come out.
Kenworthy first hit the spotlight at the 2014 Sochi Games, where he helped debut ski slopestyle as an Olympic sport an earned a silver medal. He also rescued the “Sochi strays,” five dogs that had been living outside the Olympic media center.
A rush of fame followed: Appearances on the Today show and Letterman, his face on a box of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, a street in his hometown of Telluride named Gus’ Way—and rumors linking him romantically to ice-skater Gracie Gold and pop star Miley Cyrus.
For sports stars, especially ones in sports that rely heavily on corporate endorsements, coming out is still a tricky maneuver.
Kenworthy told ESPN he was certain his hometown would turn its back on him, that sponsors would drop him, and friends and family would turn him away. So certain, in fact, that he contemplated taking his own life.
“I never got to be proud of what I did in Sochi because I felt so horrible about what I didn’t do,” Kenworthy says. “I didn’t want to come out as the silver medalist from Sochi. I wanted to come out as the best freeskier in the world.”
Like many LGBT people, Kenworthy felt he had to “atone” for being gay by being the best. “I was insecure and ashamed,” he says. “Unless you’re gay, being gay has never been looked at as being cool. And I wanted to be cool.”
But part of the cool factor for extreme sports stars is scoring with the ladies, something Kenworthy felt he had to do.
“I know hooking up with hot girls doesn’t sound like the worst thing in the world. But I literally would sleep with a girl and then cry about it afterward. I’m like, ’What am I doing? I don’t know what I’m doing.'”
He says he knew he was gay as early as 5-years-old, well before he started competing at age 15. Even when he had a boyfriend in the crowd, cheering him on, Kenworthy kept silent.
And his secret was eating him alive.
“It’s actually become stressful for me to be around him at contests because he’s so stressed out,” says friend Bobby Brown, a four-time X Games gold medalist. “[Gus] will get onto the chairlift at X Games and throw up, he’s so nervous. I’ve never seen anyone react that way, and it’s been getting worse and worse.”
While extreme sports and the X Games are branded as individualistic and “alternative,” there’s intense pressure to fit the image of the babe-chasing “bro” athlete.
And with that comes a lot of casual homophobia.
Take, for instance, the former sponsor who made a crude anti-gay remark about why Kenworthy was once late to a competition. Take his physical therapist, who once told Kenworthy that he couldn’t even imagine talking to a gay guy all night. (“I thought, ’You’ve talked to a gay guy for two hours a day, four days a week for seven months.'”)
Take the constant drumbeat of living in a culture that uses the words “gay” and “fag” as commonly as “stoked.” A daily check of social media for Kenworthy means encountering posts written by friends or peers who, without knowing it, reveal what they think about his sexuality. Today, it might be a Facebook rant or an Instagram post from a pro snowboarder who’s annoyed that “skier fags” have infiltrated another contest or complaining that a shoddy halfpipe is “gay.”
Tomorrow, it might be a tweet written by an athlete he admires who is “sickened” by same-sex marriage.
He’s been coming out to family and close friends in the sport for some months now, and has had a positive response. But still, that ingrained sense of shame is hard to shake.
“I don’t want to make skiing less cool. I hear the snowboarders call us ’skier fags,’ And it’s frustrating because I’m literally going to live up to that stereotype,” Kenworthy says. “I want to be the guy who comes out, wins shit and is like, ’I’m taking names.'”
He’s certainly headed in that direction: Today, in an Instagram post, Kenworthy wrote: “I am gay. Wow, it feels good to write those words…For most of my life I’ve been afraid to embrace that truth about myself. Recently though, I’ve gotten to the point where the pain of holding onto the lie is greater than the fear of letting go, and I’m proud to finally be letting my guard down.”
And we’re proud of you, Gus.
Watch ESPN’s interview with Gus Kenworthy, below.