With fewer than 100 days until the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, U.S. freestyle skier Gus Kenworthy has become one of the most prominent faces of the Games. And it should come as no surprise that the athlete has seen his profile rise in the four years since he took home a silver medal at the 2014 Sochi Games, where he also became famous for rescuing four pups and their mother (aka the Sochi Strays) and earned the nickname “Gus Swoon-worthy.”
But most notably, a few months after returning home from Russia, Kenworthy publicly came out as gay, in an October 2015 interview with ESPN the Magazine. He quickly became recognized and celebrated as one of only a few out American male athletes, joining the ranks of soccer player Robbie Rogers, NBA pro Jason Collins, and NFL newbie Michael Sam, who all came out just a couple of years prior.
What followed was a surge of support from sports fans and LGBTQ celebrities alike, two silver medals in the 2016 X Games and a high-profile romance with actor Matthew Wilkas, with whom he appeared on the cover of Out’s 2017 Love issue. He was included in ESPN’s annual Body Issue and raised awareness for LGBTQ issues on MTV’s The Challenge: Champs vs. Pros, even dipping his toe into acting with cameos on The Real O’Neals and Sharknado 5: Global Swarming. He’s maintained his No. 1 spot on the Men’s AFP World Rankings and has acquired an abundance of new sponsors, proving that coming out does not mean the end of a professional career.
“I had set myself up in my head for the worst-case scenario. I thought that I was going to lose sponsors and maybe lose my spot on the U.S. team,” Kenworthy says nearly two years later, after first talking to ET about coming out. “No one had come out in our sport, and I had heard people say things that had made me really scared -- other competitors or whatever -- and whether they were joking or it was just ignorance, I had felt very nervous to come out for all those reasons. The reception, I'd say, for the most part, is completely the opposite. So many people were so supportive and I was reached out to by people in all these industries that I would have never imagined. I just felt very loved.”
The love, though, extends first and foremost from Kenworthy’s mother, Pip, to whom he came out shortly after Sochi. “I knew in my heart that he was gay, but I wanted him to tell me rather than me tell him or ask him,” she tells ET. She has been there for him his entire life, helping him pursue his ambitions growing up. “Her whole schedule was taken up by my brother’s and my activities,” he says. And like most moms, Pip admits to missing all the back and forth and attending his competitions now that her son’s career has gone international. “I would love to go to all of them,” she says.
Now, as Kenworthy gears up for his second Olympic Games, where he hopes to compete on the freeskiing team in both slopestyle and halfpipe, he’s partnering with Procter & Gamble for “Love Over Bias,” a new installment of its “Thank You, Mom” campaign, which pays tribute to supportive mothers like his own. He represents one of the many athletes who’ve had to overcome adversity in their dream to compete. “I think that the most important way my mom supported me is, honestly, being there for me,” Kenworthy says. “My mom has been there for me in moments where I definitely needed her the most, and she has this inherent way of knowing exactly what to say and exactly how to talk to me, whatever the situation.”
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Just as important to Kenworthy is the fact that he’s headed into the Pyeongchang competition as an out and proud athlete. “I am so excited to go to the Games as myself,” he says. “I think that the seasons that I’ve had since coming out have been such incredible seasons, not only from a ranking standpoint and doing well, but just the feeling [being] able to compete without any shame or any sense of hiding.”
“He's so much happier; so much more relaxed,” Pip says of her son’s transformation since coming out. “He's been skiing really well.”
And this time around, if he and Wilkas are still together during the Olympic Games, Kenworthy says “I will kiss my boyfriend” at the bottom of the slope -- making up for the one regret he had about being in the closet during Sochi.
--Additional reporting by Darla Murray