by Sage Marshall
Gus Kenworthy was 14-years-old when his best friend and skiing partner, Hoot Brown, slipped beneath the snowcat. A group of kids had been out shooting videos in Telluride’s terrain park after hours. It was ill-advised, but typical mountain town teenager stuff. Brown died in the medical center. Kenworthy, his friends, and the entire town of Telluride were devastated. Brown, only 16-years-old, was a more talented skier than Kenworthy at the time. More vitally, he was a good person.
“Gus said that in the entire time that he knew Hoot—his whole life—he’d never heard him say anything derogatory about anyone,” says Kenworthy’s father, Peter. “I said, ‘that’s what you need to carry with you. Let it be a guide for how you treat people.’”
Today, Kenworthy has transcended his hometown. He’s a renowned slopestyle skier and athlete. His abs grace the pages of ESPN Magazine’s 2017 Body Issue. His permagrin, pale blue eyes, sandy brown beard, and open and friendly disposition make it easy for him to market his sponsors’ products. But his path to stardom was longer than his age would indicate.
Kenworthy learned to ski chasing his two older brothers around the high alpine, but although Telluride is famous for its natural features, it was the resort’s mediocre terrain park that called to the Kenworthy brothers, Brown, and their crew. They were the first generation of Telluride park rats. “We came around right as freeskiing was starting to happen,” says Gus’s older brother, Nick. “It was that time of evolution.”
But being on the cutting edge of extreme sports comes with inherent dangers. And Brown’s death struck Gus hard. “He was my best friend, and it was definitely a hard time for me, but I think one thing that made it bearable was the community and how everyone rallied together in support of all of us who were affected,” said Kenworthy. “Telluride made it somewhat manageable.”
Yet even as the scars from Brown’s death began to heal, the routine homophobia of mountain towns was an open wound. It bled through the ski culture Kenworthy was now an integral part of, especially in the language that people used. Homophobic slurs abounded. While his parents suspected he was gay as a young child, as a teen they were no longer sure. He lived in the closet.
“Part of what scared me was that everything that was bad was referred to as ‘gay,’” says Kenworthy. “When skiers wanted to say something that was borderline affectionate or complimentary, they would say ‘no homo’ before it. I was really scared to come out in that environment.”
On skis, though, Kenworthy’s path was easier to navigate. He signed his first sponsorship at 16, and was soon successfully competing all over the world. In 2014, Kenworthy’s rapid ascent culminated at the Sochi Winter Olympics. The pressure, both to win and from living in the closet, was nearly unbearable. “Leading into the last games, I was grinding my teeth in my sleep and going through night mouth guards,” said Kenworthy. “I was a wreck.”
Back home, friends and fans in Telluride gathered at the Chair 8 Bar to watch the games, cheering at every glimpse of Kenworthy and mention of his name. Kenworthy stomped a silver-medal-winning run in Slopestyle. On the ride to the medal ceremony, he called his dad.
“We both just screamed,” says Peter. “It was unadulterated joy.”
Afterward, Kenworthy was one of the first athletes to adopt a Sochi shelter dog, which increased his popularity twofold. But he couldn’t fully enjoy his accomplishments. He found himself constantly shirking questions about whether he had a girlfriend. At the parade down Main Street that Telluride threw in his honor, his boyfriend was there, but nobody knew it.
Kenworthy came out to his close friends and family first. They were all supportive, but he was still afraid to come out publicly. He didn’t want to lose his young female fan base. And he was nervous about the reaction of the freeskiing community. Although there had certainly been gay and bisexual freeskiers, no other male athlete had ever come out. When he made his decision, Kenworthy controlled the narrative by announcing the news in an ESPN Magazine cover story. The response was better than expected. “It changed my perception of the industry,” says Kenworthy. “I no longer think it’s homophobic, necessarily. I notice people all the time catching themselves before saying the phrase, ‘that’s gay.’ Instead, they’ve been saying ‘oh, that’s so lame.’”
Kenworthy now lives a life free of hiding. He’s happier, accepted, and dating actor Matthew Wilkas, who he spends time with in NYC. He’s an outspoken voice on LGBTQ rights and received the 2017 Human Rights Campaign’s Visibility Award. Still, he worries about young skiing fans who follow his peers on social media but not him, and sometimes it’s hard to ignore his few but hurtful detractors.
For now though, He’s focused on skiing without the added stress of living in the closet. He’s looking forward to the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, where he plans on medaling. But he’s also preserving Brown’s legacy. “The only way to fight homophobia is with visibility, with representation, with unanimity,” said Kenworthy. “There are people that are intolerant, that are assholes, and the only thing that really can battle that is kindness.”
photograph Robin Macdonald