Olympic skier Gus Kenworthy on coming out as gay, turning pro, and how he balances sports, acting, and advocacy

Gus Kenworthy (right) and his boyfriend, Matt Wilkas (left). John Sciulli/Getty Images

When American freestyle skier Gus Kenworthy publicly came out as gay in 2015, he helped change the landscape of sports.

The then-24-year-old was sick of hiding who he really was, and even though he had just won a silver medal at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, he was more miserable than ever. So, in an interview for ESPN The Magazine, he decided to be himself and come out of the closet. Now, he balances skiing, a budding acting career, and LGBTQ advocacy.

Kenworthy has become something of a role model at the intersection of sports and LGBT advocacy. By the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, Kenworthy had not only come out, but shared a kiss on live television with his boyfriend, actor Matt Wilkas, a first for the Olympics and its American broadcaster, NBC. Outsports called it “the gay sports moment of 2018.”

Business Insider spoke to Kenworthy about how he finds the balance in his career, from starring in the upcoming season of “American Horror Story,” to cycling 545 miles to raise nearly a quarter million dollars for AIDS research at the AIDS/LifeCycle bike ride. He’s also built a colossal social media following, with 1.7 million followers on Instagram.

“I cherish any downtime that I have,” Kenworthy said. “Sometimes I get restless when I have downtime.”

The beginning

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Gus Kenworthy was first known for his Olympic-level skiing. Sean M. Haffey/Getty

When it comes to skiing, Kenworthy always knew he had a talent. He got his big break when he posted a video of himself on the slopes of his hometown, Telluride, Colorado, for a skiing competition in Europe. Kenworthy knew at the time that going pro was extremely difficult, but the video submission was his shot at success. “This felt like it was a great chance to try and do it,” said Kenworthy. “I saw that this was a competition to put these videos online, and I saw some of the ones that had already been submitted, and I thought, ‘Oh, I could do that, I’m better than that.'”

When he found out that his video had been selected, his father, Peter Kenworthy, became his manager. “I got a company in France reach out to me via email, and was like ‘We wanna sponsor you, we wanna pay you to ski for us.’ And I literally thought it was fake. I sent it to my dad and said, ‘Is this a prank? Am I getting punk’d?'”

During that first competition, Kenworthy was still in high school, and had not yet come to terms with his sexuality. “When I was younger all my role models weren’t gay role models, they were just sports role models,” he said. “It was so ski-specific.”

He got to meet his hero on that trip: Canadian freestyle skier TJ Schiller. Kenworthy, still an unknown, had been cutting out pictures of his role model out of skiing magazines, but after meeting Schiller, they became peers. “We’re friends now, and text and stuff – it’s very strange. He ended up just becoming a really good friend and mentor.”

Arriving at his identity

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Growing up in Telluride, a tiny ski town, Kenworthy didn’t have too many role models from the gay community. He looked up to celebrities like Ricky Martin, Ellen Page, and Troye Sivan for coming out, but he only knew one gay person in his immediate circle. “I actually have an uncle who’s gay,” Kenworthy said, “and my family adores my uncle Sam, but he and I in many ways couldn’t be more different. I think that was part of the thing that made it hard for me when I was coming to terms with the fact that I was gay. That was really the only point of context that I had.”

But as he got older, Kenworthy understood more about his sexuality and himself. “I realised that ‘gay’ is just part of someone, it doesn’t define anything else about them,” he said.

Kenworthy has a motto that he carries around with him. He had used it on high school essays, he said, but didn’t embody it fully until he came out. “The quote is, ‘Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter won’t mind.’ And I think it’s especially true for someone in the closet. And it’s just this theme that you should be who you are, and really not care what anyone says, because anybody that’s gonna say anything about you being you is not somebody you have time for anyway.”

According to Kenworthy, once he competed for the first time after coming out, his skiing became better than ever, and he grew more comfortable living in the public eye. Ever since, he’s been sponsoring clothing products, acting, and advocating for the LGBTQ community. But Kenworthy sees the common thread. “It’s all different facets of myself. Skiing and acting may seem like different worlds, but they’re both things that I’m passionate about.”

Despite being busier than ever, he appreciates the occasional day off. “I’m really trying to learn how to love that,” he said. “To use that day to get in a chill workout, and get lunch with friends, and get dinner, and not overdo anything or think about anything too much.”