Gus Kenworthy on the toll of freeskiing -- and learning to fall

Gus Kenworthy: My body knows what to do (1:25)

Freeskiing is a demanding sport for the human body. Five-time X Games medalist Gus Kenworthy relies on muscle memory, strength and willpower to make it to the podium. (1:25)

This is an online exclusive story from ESPN The Magazine's Body Issue 2017, on newsstands on July 7. Subscribe today!

The last time Gus Kenworthy appeared in ESPN The Magazine was in 2015, when he announced to the world he was gay. Now Kenworthy is baring all again -- this time literally -- for the ninth annual Body Issue. Following his fearless photo shoot, the X Games icon spoke with Alyssa Roenigk about his newfound confidence, the toll freeskiing takes on his body and, yes, what it was like to land jumps in his birthday suit. Here's Kenworthy, in his own words.

Coming out [in The Magazine in 2015] was something I was really scared to do and a bold step, and in a weird way, I almost feel like the Body Issue is quite similar because it's really, really vulnerable. "Gus Kenworthy bares all," but it's twice over. The first time was me baring my soul and feeling very naked and exposed, and that's exactly what I signed up for, but it was quite intense. I did feel quite naked. I had nothing to hide behind. This is the same thing but in a more literal sense. This was a huge step for me, and it was really scary. I was nervous to have a bunch of people looking at me at the shoot, but I didn't feel like a spectacle. After the first five minutes, I just didn't care anymore. I was surprised how comfortable I was. Falling was definitely one of the fears, though. I've fallen so many times in my career that you get quite good at it, but usually you have a jacket and snow pants to protect your body! And it was incredibly cold -- the snow was total ice. It was 28 degrees and super windy, with a crazy windchill. It felt like it was 0 degrees. My jaw was chattering, my hands were shaking, I was turning red, I was so cold. A guy would come to pick me up on the snowmobile and I'd be standing at the bottom of the jump naked, shivering. He'd hand me a robe and I'd put it on and sit on the back of the sled and get towed up.

They knew I was freezing, so they were like, "If it's not worth it, we don't have to do the jump." I wanted to hit it as few times as I could because it was so cold. I dropped in and did a rodeo. They had no idea what I was going to do, so I think they were shocked [by the jump]. It was relatively quick. I probably hit it six times.

It was amazing. I don't think I'll ever forget this. Growing up, seeing an openly gay athlete in the Body Issue would have shown me that being gay is OK. I'm not excluded from these amazing things. It would have given me a lot of hope.

I think my mental edge comes from me being in the closet for so much of my life. I became really good at compartmentalizing and focusing on the task at hand. I always had so many distractions because I was always fearful of being found out or saying the wrong thing. I would have to not let it get to me if someone said the judging was "gay" or whatever. I felt like I was just lying to everyone. I wasn't being authentic, and I feel like it showed in so many ways, even my posture. I've seen photos since I've come out and I think, "Oh my god, look how happy I look." And it's not even that I'm smiling; there's something there, a twinkle in the eye that looks like I'm genuinely happy.

Coming out and being able to feel that freedom and that acceptance, that made me so much more comfortable with my body and in social settings and even at competitions. I got to compete uninhibited. I didn't have this secret I was hiding. It's allowed me to really home in on what I need to be doing. That focus has helped in my sport. I don't think you have to be the very, very best in the sport to do the best at an event; it's a combination of being one of the best and having the right mindset and being able to focus and turn it on at the right time.

I do a lot of visualization work. Right before I drop in for my run, I'll close my eyes, focus on my breathing and go through my run from top to bottom in great detail. This is what it's going to sound like and this is what I'm going to think coming into this rail and how it will feel landing this trick.

I have felt so insecure about my body at times. I've been on every end of the spectrum. I felt like I was too skinny and wished I could be muscular. I've felt like I was chubby and wanted to be skinny. I think everybody suffers from body image issues. I might exude confidence sometimes, but I'm pretty insecure. I have started to feel better knowing that my body isn't perfect, but it is the best that my body can be, and every day I try and better it.

I'm not one of those people who can eat whatever I want and never go to the gym. I have to work hard for any results I see. My diet is reasonable, though. It's not crazy strict -- what you would think an athlete or Olympian would be on. If I really want ice cream and I'm with people who are going to get ice cream, I will get ice cream. If I feel like I indulged too much, I'll work extra hard the next day at the gym or go for a run to make up for whatever I decided to eat.

I don't think you necessarily have to be crazy fit for freeskiing. So much of the sport has to do with agility and nimbleness and flexibility and other things. It's a lot of muscle memory -- it's more like dance, in a way -- it's technique more than strength or endurance. There are so many different body types in our sport, and I wouldn't say one is ideal over another. There's skinny guys, there's overweight guys, there's really fit guys. For me, I try to keep size for protection. We take a lot of falls on hardpack snow or ice, and I like to know that if I'm going to take a slam to my shoulder or hit my ribs on the deck of the halfpipe, my body is going to do the best possible job it can protecting my bones and ligaments and tendons. I can reduce that risk of injury as much as I possibly can by being prepared to take that impact.

I've fallen so many times skiing that my body instantly knows how to protect itself. Any time everyone else is shocked that I'm OK after seeing how bad I crashed, that's a time I feel like my body has done right by me and protected me in a way that I hoped it would. My body's just programmed after all these years to do what I want it to do. I like that I know exactly how to maneuver my body to do what I have to do and how my muscles react to what I need them to do. And even if something goes wrong in a trick, I know how to get out of it and fall.

I've had knee trouble, and I worry about my shoulder, but I think my weakest link is my head. A helmet can only do so much, and I have seen the effects of brain injuries. That is a big fear. I think everyone's weakest link is their brain because it's their most fragile link.

The toll of competing in three freeskiing disciplines is immense. At a competition, when everyone else has one event, they get to have the rest of their days free to ice or go to the gym or sit on the bike or relax. Competing in three events, I have to go from one to the next and have training that overlaps with qualifiers. It's nonstop. But it's what I signed up for, so I try not to act too surprised by it.

I travel a lot too. The whole thing about jet lag is you have no control over it. Sometimes I will be physically exhausted and didn't sleep on the flight or slept too much, and in those scenarios you have to make decisions the best you can. Do I need this practice? Do I not need it? What is best for my body? Other parts of it are planning. If I have a flight and have to land and go straight to the mountain, I'll not sleep the night before, so I will have to sleep on the flight even if it takes off at 5 in the afternoon. You have to think ahead and plan and know when you have to perform.

For more Body interviews: AJ Andrews | Javier Baez | Julian Edelman | Ezekiel Elliott | Kirstie Ennis | Julie and Zach Ertz | Malakai Fekitoa | Gus Kenworthy | Nneka Ogwumike | Isaiah Thomas | Joe Thornton and Brent Burns | US Women's National Hockey Team | Ashley Wagner | Michelle Waterson | Novlene Williams-Mills | Caroline Wozniacki