The figure skater and skier reflect on being the first openly gay men to represent the United States at the Winter Olympics.
Adam Rippon and Gus Kenworthy made history at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, becoming the first openly gay men to represent the United States at the Winter Games. Now, back on home soil, they’re dealing with the rush of fame that the Olympics spotlight brings, and what it means to represent a country that still struggles deeply with issues of homophobia, bigotry and hate.
“It’s not like we’re the first gay Olympians,” Kenworthy tells Out Magazine in a new profile of the pair. “We’re just the first from the U.S. that have been able to speak our truths.”
Both men agree that, for them, the highlight of the entire Games was the opening ceremony, which they celebrated together, meeting up amid the sea of fellow American athletes to walk side-by-side in the parade.
“It was really important for me to find Gus,” Rippon recalls. “We joke around a lot, but being able to experience the opening ceremony with somebody that I know has felt a lot of those same feelings as me was important. I thought of everything I had been through as a young kid to get to that moment, and to feel confident, and to feel that I really liked who I was.”
“To be in Pyeongchang, and get to walk into this huge stadium as myself, as an out gay man, and do it alongside Adam was the biggest, best moment of my entire life,” Kenworthy agrees. “And that was why it was so important for me to find him. Because I felt like we had the same story, and I wanted to share that moment with him. It was the highlight of the entire Games for me.”
“It was like sparks flying,” he adds. “We met, and hugged, and vented about our accommodation, and talked about the people on our team, and RuPaul’s Drag Race, and then suddenly we were best friends.”
However, despite the patriotic splendor of the Games, and the pride they felt in themselves as both out gay men and Olympic-caliber athletes, Kenworthy and Rippon faced an extra level of pressure in Pyeongchang, in the form of online hate and vitriol from homophobic bullies.
“Being out was such a f***ing cool experience, but no straight athletes were checking their messages or comments the day before their event and seeing death threats and super-hurtful shit from internet bullies,” Kenworthy notes. “The day before my event I read messages that were like, ‘I hope you fall, I hope you break your legs, you’re a piece of shit.’ I had a message that was like, ‘I want to curb stomp you, you f***ot.’ I’m like, OK, cool, there’s someone out there that wants to put my teeth on a curb and stomp on my neck. It takes a lot to read that about yourself and know that there are people out there that don’t want you to succeed.”
“And then you go and represent those people,” Rippon adds. “I’m an American representing the United States of America, and I would get a pit in my stomach every time there was somebody on social media with an American flag in their name. The most consistent message I got was, ‘I hope you fail, I hope you fall. I’ve never cheered against someone in my entire life.’ That was really consistent — it was pretty much across the board. That somebody could go out of their way to say they’re proud of their country and that they love it, and they’re a patriot, and then turn around and taunt their athletes is incredibly disrespectful. They’re the opposite of a patriot.”
Rippon finished 10th overall in the men’s singles figure skating competition, and took home a bronze medal with his fellow American skaters in the team competition, making him the first openly gay male athlete to medal at a Winter Olympics. Kenworthy -- who won a silver at the Sochi Games in 2014, prior to coming out publicly -- didn’t have the Olympics he was hoping for, fighting through injury to finish in 12th place in the men’s slopestyle competition. However, the skier got a moment in the spotlight that meant just as much to him, when he shared a televised kiss with boyfriend Matt Wilkas before his qualifying run.
“Now that I’ve had a little bit of time to let it marinate — I think I understand that it was a huge deal because all I’ve ever wanted to be since I came out is the person that I needed as a kid to look up to,” recalls Kenworthy, who said he didn’t think twice about the kiss at the time. “And I think that if I had seen two guys kissing at the Olympics and being celebrated, and not having it be the kiss of death, it would have changed the entire course of my life. I think I would have come out earlier. I would have accepted myself earlier. It would have saved so many years of heartache and anguish.”
“My only regret is that I didn't know the cameras were rolling, or I would have full-on made out with him,” he adds. “Because, dude, it’s the Olympics — it’s beamed into television sets across the world, in countries where homosexuality is completely illegal, punishable by jail, or by death... In a weird way, maybe it was the reason that I was at the Games. I didn’t do that well, but I left with my head held so high.”
So, will fans see them competing again in 2020, at the Winter Olympics in Beijing, China? It’s a hard no for Rippon, who jokes that he wants to “never say never — but never.”
“I left the Olympics feeling like a hero and a champion,” he adds. “It’s all I ever wanted from my sport...This was my third Olympics trials. It wasn’t my first rodeo, and I feel so lucky that I was able to hang in there. I was the oldest first-time figure-skating Olympian since 1936, and I stuck around ’til the very bitter end and milked it for all it was worth. And I’m going to do that the rest of my life.
As for Kenworthy, the question is slightly more complicated.
“I was at the top of my game in Sochi four years ago when I got a medal, and eight years of competing at the highest level is very difficult,” he notes. “I don’t know if I’ll make it to Beijing. I’m planning on competing next winter, seeing how it goes, taking things as they come, and rolling with the punches.”
What they do know is how proud they are to have added their own chapters to the ever-expanding history of gay athletes representing their countries on the Olympic stage.
“I was just thinking about the Brian Boitanos and the Johnny Weirs and the people that are out now but weren’t when they competed, and I feel like we are just a product of the generation that we grew up in,” Kenworthy observes. “It’s amazing that we got to be the first two out American guys to compete at the Winter Olympics. There wasn’t that opportunity for people to do that prior to us, really...I think that fear is real and palpable, and I think it was even more real for people in previous generations.”
“Maybe Gus and I are the face of gay Olympians, but the next gay Olympians will be featured for the incredible stories they have to offer first, not because they’re gay,” Rippon hopes. “Being gay will just be a fact about them, like their hometown, or the number of siblings they have, or the high school they went to. It will just be a fact.”
“I don’t think that you’re going to see fewer of us in the future,” Kenworthy adds, “you’re going to see more of us.”
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