U.S. Olympic freeskier Gus Kenworthy’s favorite part of competition is not being upside down, mid–gravity-defying stunt: It’s actually the moments just before and just after. “There’s never really another moment in my everyday life where I feel so emotional,” 24-year-old Kenworthy told BuzzFeed News. “This crazy culmination of feelings that’s going on in your stomach. It’s almost nauseating and it can be nauseating — I sometimes throw up when I get really nervous.”
The building of suspense, the seconds that drag on like years, and the relief of a safe touchdown — these are all feelings Kenworthy has experienced lately, even when he was nowhere near fresh snow.
During the 2014 Sochi Olympics, crowds congratulated Kenworthy on his silver medal and heroic puppy rescue, unaware that the athlete was busy wrestling with a larger secret. Last month when he appeared on the cover of ESPN The Magazine, Kenworthy finally touched down from a leap he had been working toward since he was 5 years old — coming out as gay.
On Dec. 10, the freestyle skier will return to the Winter Dew Tour as the defending champion of Slopestyle, but everything will feel like a first — his first competition since recovering from a serious injury (surgery for a break in his femur last March), and his first appearance as an out skier. BuzzFeed caught up with Kenworthy over the phone — after strolling around New York City with him just a week earlier — to discuss how it feels to have landed one of the biggest jumps of his life and what challenges are up next.
It’s been a few weeks now since your ESPN cover. How have you been doing since the big day?
GK: It’s been a crazy couple of weeks since the cover came out. It hasn’t really been as shocking, maybe, as people thought it was going to be? I feel like it has been really comfortable, allowing me to be who I want to be and be who I always have been. I think I kind of lived in a perpetual fear of outing myself — always making sure I was doing the right thing to stay in the closet and keep people from wondering or assuming anything that I wasn’t ready to let them know. It’s been really nice to be able to be really open, transparent, and honest. It’s been weird to suddenly talk about my sexuality, something that I haven’t ever really been very vocal about. It’s a little bit new, I guess, and crazy to be in [this] position? I don’t ever want to feel like I’m selling out my sexuality.
But it has been amazing to get that weight off my chest and just finally be able to talk about it. I hope that I’m helping and inspiring kids to be themselves and be comfortable and honest, not feel ashamed or feel like they have to hide anything — which I know is easier said than done. But I hope that that’s kind of the point that’s coming across with the interviews I’m doing.
A lot of coming out, for me, is sort of when I already did it to my agent, my friends, and my family. When I did it publicly it was more to inspire change in opinions and battle intolerance.
You mentioned in the past how difficult it can be to come out when you’re in the world of action sports. How have your fellow athletes reacted?
GK: I think I’ve been surprised — it’s been a good surprised. There’s been a little bit of mixed feedback, but overall I think people are genuinely happy for me. I think most of the people I’ve grown up skiing with, and that I compete with — they didn’t know at all. Because of that, I wasn’t sure how people were going to react, but [overall they have] been supportive. I got a lot of tweets of encouragement, texts from friends, and calls. It made me feel good. I wasn’t sure if that was going to be the reaction because of what the industry is and what the sport is — the image that it projects and the way that sometimes people talk. I was pleasantly surprised.
In the ESPN story, you said that you never got to be proud of what you did in Sochi because you were closeted. What would you tell yourself at Sochi if you could go back in time?
GK: I think I would have told myself not to get hung up on the fact that I wasn’t out yet because in a way it would have been very comforting to be out in that scenario, to be able to talk honestly and openly throughout those interviews and in that media onslaught that pursued the Olympics. In hindsight, I don’t think I would have changed anything. I don’t think I was ready to come out then. I think that even though it was a struggle, those few weeks and that month of media, the games, and everything? I think that was actually a turning point for me where I realized I did want to come out and I realized how important it was to me — that I couldn’t continue this charade any longer.
I wouldn’t have changed that because it was a critical moment in my life. I think it’s important that I had the time to talk to my family and close friends — these people that are so directly involved in my life — to tell them first and have that open discussion so that they weren’t blindsided. I think had I done something at the Olympics or after it would have been such a shock to them. I don’t think it would have necessarily been the best move. I’m glad I got to tell them in my own time.
Coming out was such a huge hurdle for you personally — now that you’ve had the big moment, what’s your next goal?
GK: Now that I’ve had this big weight taken off my shoulders, I think the next thing I want to do is really focus on my skiing and the sport. I’ve always had my mind being pulled in two different ways — this internal battle going on. It’s hard to give my skiing my complete focus, so I’m looking forward to skiing uninhibited. The next Olympics is my next hurdle, though it’s a few years away.
How do you think it will feel to get up at your next competition and perform completely and authentically as yourself?
GK: I think that’s going to be such an amazing feeling. I’ve been pretty good over the years with separating my two lives: my skiing mindset and my personal life, my love life and everything else. I’ve been compartmentalizing those different things and it still weighs heavy on me and it weighs heavy on my soul. It’s allowed me to be easily distracted because I’d be in the mindset to compete and I’d be thinking about my run and what I’m about to do and I’d get distracted. I think having [my sexuality] out there in the open and me being able to feel comfortable and confident will change a lot.
Do you have any pre-event rituals when you’re competing?
GK: The events that are less important to me I don’t get very nervous for. I can eat a good breakfast, stretch, and feel good. In the contests that I put more emphasis on, in my own mind, I sometimes get really nervous so I have a hard time eating breakfast that day. It’s more just me trying to calm my nerves — breathing and visualizing it, trying to be mellow and preserve as much energy as I can until I need it. I don’t really have any superstitions, I don’t wear one kind of underwear or anything like that.
What’s your favorite thing about competing?
GK: My favorite part of competing is actually the moment right before I compete and then right after I compete. It’s the buildup before an event and the feeling you get before you’re going into your competition run, the mix of excitement and nervous energy. This crazy culmination of feelings that’s going on in your stomach, it’s almost nauseating and it can be nauseating — I sometimes throw up when I get really nervous. I love that feeling. There’s never really another moment in my everyday life where I feel so emotional. There’s just so much going on and then there’s the moment right after a competition run when you land a run you’re happy with, there’s never a better sigh of relief. It’s such a crazy feeling to feel like you gave it your all and it went well. That feeling is the kind of the feeling I live for: landing the last jump or that last hit in a half-pipe. I hold my breath almost on the last trick and when I land, I let out everything. It’s a good feeling.
Do you have advice for athletes, or non-athletes, who are currently closeted and possibly struggling with some of the same emotions you were before coming out?
GK: I’ve had so many kids reaching out to me in the last few weeks. I try to just tell everyone that it does get better. I know that sounds crazy. It’s really difficult being in the closet. It’s not fun. It’s really scary, and really emotional, and it’s kind of traumatic. I want to encourage kids absolutely to be themselves and embrace that part of themselves, but I also don’t think it’s my place — or anybody’s place — to tell someone when they should come out or how they should come out. I think it’s really a personal thing, a personal journey.
It’s something I kind of wish I had embraced a little sooner. I don’t think I’ve met anyone who said, “Oh man, I wish I had stayed in the closet a little bit longer.” Because once you come out you realize how much happier you are and how much weight is off your shoulders, how much less pressure you feel in your everyday life. I would encourage anybody to do it just because that feeling is so great and it’s such a release. I would want anyone to feel that release.
I think it’s important that people know that the people that do love them and are there for them and are their supporters are still going to be those people, regardless of your sexual orientation. The people that don’t feel that way, and aren’t supportive, and can’t come to terms or accept it — they’re not really people you need in your life anyway. In a way it can be sad, but it does show you who your true friends are and, in a way, that’s kind of beautiful.
We figured a superior athlete could handle some rapid-fire questions as well:
What is your favorite event to compete in?
GK: The X Games! It hasn’t really gone my way — it’s not an event that I always do well at. There’s something about the X Games that’s larger than life; it has such a crazy energy. I put a lot of emphasis on it and it’s really an emotional event for me. I’m really looking forward to it and I hope it goes better for me.
What are your most used emojis right now?
Those girls with the pink sweaters are the ones I use the most, it’s ridiculous.
Do you have a celeb crush?
GK: I’ll say Matt Bomer.
What’s your favorite television show right now?
GK: How to Get Away With Murder, for sure. I’m not caught up — I only started watching it a little while ago, so I’m in the first season, but I’m definitely hooked.
Ideal first date?
GK: My ideal first date would be something where you get a lot of time to talk with someone. I don’t really understand why people go to shows or movies on a first date. I definitely want to use that time to talk and get to know someone. Maybe meeting for a drink with plans to go to dinner somewhere? So you can get a drink and talk, then walk to dinner.
Do you have any automatic dating deal breakers?
GK: Oh god, I’m sure there are so many. I can’t deal with someone who has bad breath, it’s just the worst. That sounds really shallow but I just couldn’t deal with that. I guess really bad manners would be a big turnoff. I don’t need someone who is super prim and proper, but, I don’t know, I think I would be turned off if someone was a sloppy eater or wasn’t genuinely courteous. Also no sense of humor or a bad sense of humor would be a huge turnoff. And someone who can’t spell! If we are texting and there are tons of spelling mistakes, I can’t deal with that.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.