This story is part of ESPN's ongoing series exploring what it means to be an openly gay athlete in the post-acceptance world. Look for stories on Derrick Gordon, Megan Rapinoe, Chris Mosier and others in ESPN The Magazine's Being Out Issue, on newsstands Oct. 30. Subscribe today!
Advisory: This story contains explicit language.
GUS KENWORTHY STARTED coming out to his family and closest friends nearly two years ago. His mom said she knew. His brother said he was proud. His best friend voiced unrelenting support. And if Gus Kenworthy were an average 24-year-old, the announcement -- the story -- might have ended there. But Gus Kenworthy is not an average 24-year-old. He is the top freeskier on the planet, an Olympic medalist, a face of the X Games. He is an elite athlete competing in the world of action sports, where sponsors -- and income -- are inextricably linked to image. In other words, he is an athlete with a lot to lose. But Gus Kenworthy is ready to tell that world, his sport, his truth. And so, as we sit down together in Los Angeles in September, he begins the only way he knows how: "I guess I should start by saying, 'I'm gay.'"
ONE MONTH AFTER the debut of ski slopestyle at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Kenworthy, armed with a silver medal, is returning home to Telluride, Colorado. There's a parade being held in his honor, the town's first Winter Olympian. A crush of kids waving miniature flags printed with Kenworthy's image march below a "Go Gus!" banner that stretches across the town's main drag. There's a band and fireworks. Mayor Stu Fraser proclaims a stretch of San Juan Avenue "Gus's Way."
As only the third trio in American history to sweep a Winter Olympics event, Kenworthy and fellow medalists Joss Christensen and Nick Goepper are media darlings. They were featured on the Today show, Good Day New York and a box of Kellogg's Corn Flakes. David Letterman gave them a standing ovation. But the charismatic star in the center attracted the most attention. Kenworthy not only medaled in Russia, he also saved the Sochi strays, five dogs that had been living outside an Olympic media center. A photo he posted cuddling the pups went viral, and his social media numbers soared. He was linked to ice-skater Gracie Gold and pop sensation Miley Cyrus. People magazine and US Weekly put him on their covers. He was a Jeopardy answer.
Now, back home in Telluride, mountains looming as the backdrop, Kenworthy addresses his fans. "This is incredibly overwhelming," he says, words shaky, face red from the cold. "This whole crowd here is my family."
As his short speech comes to a close to raucous applause, Kenworthy continues through the crowd, flashing uneasy grins for the camera-holding masses, wishing he could hide from view. They see a hometown hero, Kenworthy sees a liar and a coward. If they knew he was gay, would these kids idolize him as much? Would his sponsors continue to pay him? Would his friends stop using "gay" as a descriptor for all things that suck?
The answer, Kenworthy is convinced, is no. They'd all turn away, and all he'd be left with is a heavy piece of silver. He is so convinced of this that, in his darkest moments, one of America's newest and most beloved Olympians has contemplated taking his own life.
Instead, in the months after Sochi, Kenworthy makes a deal with himself, to settle two debts: Become the world's best freeskier, and then, and only then, tell everyone the truth.
"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."
KENWORTHY HAS ALWAYS been fiercely competitive. Growing up in Telluride with two older brothers, Hugh and Nick, he developed a passion for skiing. As a child, when he'd learn a new skill, he'd pepper his ski coach with the same two questions: "He would ask, 'Did I do that better than Nick? Better than Hugh?'" remembers his mom, Pip. But his coach's verbal reassurance wasn't enough. "He'd get the coach to write on a piece of paper, 'Gus did a 360 better than Nick,'" his mom says. "He wanted to be better than his brothers, better than everyone." Then, just for good measure, he'd bring the notes home and hang them on the fridge.
Kenworthy and his friends were known to stay at the terrain park practicing tricks after the lifts were closed, hiking the jumps for hours. When staff would ask them to leave, Kenworthy would go home and build jumps in his backyard instead. "I always felt like I had something to prove, like I had to work twice as hard to make sure I got it," he says. "I knew I didn't want to be a good skier. I wanted to be the best."
For him, being the best was a form of atonement. Kenworthy knew he was gay as early as 5 years old and felt different from other boys. With his brothers, he shared a love for skiing and hockey, but their similarities seemed to end there. "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."
Even early on as a competitor, Kenworthy earned a reputation for "guinea-pigging" -- trying new jumps and tricks before anyone else. It was a huge source of pride for him and a surefire way to earn the respect of his peers in the action sports world, where athletes are constantly weighing the risk against the reward. "I was pretty adventurous and daring," Kenworthy says. "And I had rubber bones." One particularly impressive YouTube video of his skills, posted online when he was 16, landed him his first sponsors. He turned pro later that year.
Almost immediately, Kenworthy says, he felt pressure to fit in. Friends weren't an issue; he was good-looking and likable, the kind of guy who gets along with everyone. But girls were an inescapable part of the role. "In skiing, there's such an alpha male thing about pulling the hottest chicks," Kenworthy says. "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.'"
On the mountain, Kenworthy was unstoppable. At 15, he competed in the USASA Nationals and took first place in superpipe and third in slopestyle. But 2010 was his breakout year -- he won both slopestyle and superpipe at the Aspen/Snowmass Open. Still, there was one competition that was in his head, one that loomed larger to him than the rest -- the X Games. "More than I've wanted anything," Kenworthy says, "I've wanted to do well at the X Games."
Kenworthy grew up watching the X Games, always noticing how the announcers riffed about his favorite skiers as the camera focused on their families and girlfriends. "It was such a window into who they were," he says. So when he competed there for the first time, at 19, the year after that breakout event, it probably shouldn't have come as a surprise when an ESPN TV producer asked if his girlfriend would be in attendance. And yet, it caught him completely off guard. "No, no girlfriend," Kenworthy replied, his stomach twisting into knots. The question left him nervous, feeling guilty, his focus completely shot. It was no way to drop into a slopestyle course or an icy, 22-foot-tall halfpipe. "X Games has been the death of me," Kenworthy says. "I've won every contest on tour and medaled at the Olympics, and I've never won a medal in Aspen."
That refrain -- "No, no girlfriend" -- is something Kenworthy wound up repeating year after year, even when he had a boyfriend standing in the crowd, cheering him on. The X Games are a testosterone-fueled, obligation-filled weekend, which can make it difficult to focus, but it's that one question that Kenworthy believes affects him most deeply and throws him off his game. "Part of [the stress] is the fact that I've never had a TV boyfriend," he says. "That's actually something I want so bad -- a TV boyfriend."
"It's actually become stressful for me to be around him at contests because he's so stressed out," says Bobby Brown, Kenworthy's best friend and four-time X Games gold medalist. "He 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."
FOR ALL OF its emphasis on being alternative, the action sports world doesn't reward nonconformity. "They say it's a community of individuals and everyone is doing their own thing and it's not a team sport, so you get to be yourself," Kenworthy says. "But you don't, really." Unlike team sports, athletes never leave the locker room. They turn pro as children and become immediately indoctrinated by the culture. "Between the contests and the [video] shoots, everyone's always skiing and training together," Kenworthy says. "But it is the same, it's totally like that: Be creative, be yourself, be all this stuff, but also literally just be everybody else."
Kenworthy has watched carefully these past few years as the world around him has grown more accepting. Gay marriage is legal now, attitudes are changing. He was excited this spring when Caitlyn Jenner came out. He believes that people are more aware.
"But then at the same time," he says, "people are literally oblivious."
For him, there have existed day-to-day reminders. 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.
"There's a lot of testosterone in our sport, and those derogatory words get thrown around like crazy," says Canadian freeskier Justin Dorey. "A lot of people don't think twice about it because those words don't mean anything to them."
Action sports have also always been about promoting a lifestyle. Though they might appear decidedly counterculture -- the baggy clothes, the music, the long hair -- the athletes live in uniform. But with the core snow industry's economy tanking (Nike eliminated snowboarding and skiing from its action sports program, Burton cut riders, Quiksilver filed for bankruptcy) and new corporate influence and sponsors flowing in, the athletes have less and less control deciding what that lifestyle is, if they ever had control in the first place. Sponsors equal an athlete's livelihood. A top athlete like Kenworthy, who is sponsored by Nike, Atomic, GoPro and Monster, takes in around 80 percent of his $500,000 to $1 million a year from sponsorships, which are based as much on image as they are contest wins.
With legitimate income on the table, Kenworthy can't help but be worried about how all of this will affect his livelihood. "Everyone wears a Red Bull or Monster or Rockstar cap, a T-shirt and jeans and skate shoes," Kenworthy says. "Everyone drives the same type of car and listens to the same kind of music. The industry isn't the most embracing of someone who's different. I'm nervous about that."
"It's tough when you have people telling you who to be and how to act in order to keep your job," Brown says. "But I've seen that the people who flourish stick to their guns and are themselves. Those are the people who live the happiest lives and have the most longevity in action sports. But that's easier said than done."
When Kenworthy came out to Dorey in January, Dorey's response was instant -- it was time for Kenworthy to share his full self with the world -- their world. "Our sport needs this," he told him. "Action sports needs this. More people than you think will be supportive."
Or so they hope.
"I don't want to make skiing less cool," Kenworthy says. "I hear the snowboarders call us 'skier fags.' And it's frustrating because I'm literally going to live up to that stereotype."
IN JANUARY, KENWORTHY arrived at the X Games in Aspen the favorite of the event. Less than a year removed from his Sochi success, he was featured in broadcasts and promotional materials, his face plastered throughout the site. He was expected to medal in slopestyle, superpipe and big air; no other skier or snowboarder even qualified for three events.
He failed to medal in any.
The next day, he called his father and told him he was quitting. He'd skied his last run.
In Kenworthy's mind, he was a failure. A few months before the Aspen event, his relationship with his boyfriend -- who was largely responsible for bringing the stray dogs home from Sochi -- had ended. Two had died -- one in Russia, one shortly after arriving in the U.S. to live -- and his boyfriend took the dogs with him. Kenworthy felt surrounded by loss. He'd made a promise to himself about being the best, and he was falling short. If he quit now, he thought, he could walk away quietly, come out to a few friends, fall in love again and attempt to find peace.
"In a state like he was in, I told him not to make decisions," says Gus' father, Peter. "I said, 'Go home, sleep on it and worst case, give yourself another year.'"
His agent, Michael Spencer, echoed the sentiment. "I told him, 'Don't quit after one bad event. Spend a season doing the runs you want to do, take away all expectations and see where the cards fall.'"
Kenworthy took their advice to heart and decided to go forward with his season. Ten days after the X Games, he was back at it, this time with renewed purpose. At the Mammoth Mountain Grand Prix, Kenworthy took third in halfpipe. At the Shaun White Air + Style event at the Rose Bowl two weeks later, he won the inaugural ski big air event. But those wins were minor compared with what came next: At the February event in Park City, already in possession of the highest score of the day, Kenworthy dropped into the halfpipe for his second run and debuted a new trick -- a double cork 1260. If he added it to his run, he could make history. On his first hit, he stomped a massive left double cork safety grab 1260 and then landed three other double corks. It was the first contest run to ever include four different double corks. It's widely heralded as the greatest performance in ski halfpipe history.
With that win, Kenworthy finished the season No. 1, the Association of Freeskiing Professionals overall champ for the fifth year in a row. Few would argue that Kenworthy's 2014-15 season wasn't one of the best, if not the best, of all time.
"About five years ago, we all started picking slopestyle, halfpipe or big air and focusing 100 percent of our time on one event," Dorey says. "Gus is the only athlete who is talented and driven enough to win in all three disciplines. And he did that last year. He's the best contest freeskier in the world. He has the head on his shoulders to be the icon."
Despite an injury soon after, at the World Cup contest in France, Kenworthy knew he'd reached his goal of being the best in the world. He spent the rest of the summer at his house in Denver recovering physically from a torn MCL and lateral meniscus and underwent microfracture surgery to repair a break in his femur. And for the rest of the summer, he started to heal emotionally, allowing his mind to wander to this coming January, to the X Games. He thought about how it would feel to compete without the burden of protecting his secret and what it would be like to one day stand in the start gate, look up at the big screen and see "Gus Kenworthy's boyfriend" cheering him on from the bottom of the course. After 24 years, the reward had become greater than the risk. He knew it was time.
"I'm sure there have been gay action sports athletes in the past," Dorey says. "I'm sure there are now. But Gus being the first to step up, come out and take the heat, it's badass. Once again, he's guinea-pigging it for everyone else."
Kenworthy, no surprise, approaches it like he approaches everything else -- as an athlete. "I want to be the guy who comes out, wins s--- and is like, I'm taking names."