How Coming Out Lit the Fire Under Gus Kenworthy’s Competitive Ski Career

Gus Kenworthy was already one of the most accomplished competitors in freeskiing when he announced that he was gay in an October 2015 ESPN The Magazine article. While the news was received well throughout the action sports community and beyond, many wondered if the media storm that followed would affect the six-time AFP champion and Olympic slopestyle silver medalist’s continued quest for podiums.

Kenworthy answered those questions in a big way last season, launching an epic coming out party that saw him stand on the X Games podium—a place he had never been previous—three times in 2016 alone. Armed with newfound confidence and veteran wisdom, the Telluride native rolls into Dew Tour on a mission to keep momentum going into the new season and on to next year’s Olympic Games in PyeongChang, South Korea.

I caught up with Kenworthy, one of the sports last true triple threats (competing in slopestyle, halfpipe, and big air), after training on Austria’s Stubai Glacier to hear about his plans for Dew Tour’s new format, his off-season, and what keeps his competitive fire lit day in and day out.

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Gracefully flying through the air with a 900 during semifinals at 2015 Dew Tour Breckenridge. Photo: Baldwin (click to enlarge)

How has the offseason been treating you?
It was pretty mellow. I went down to Australia at the end of August for 10 days to be on snow at Perisher and it was with the US Team. That was the only skiing I did besides this [Austrian] training camp with the U.S. Ski and Snowboard teams. I definitely took a little break over this summer. Got to enjoy summer and then fall gearing up for winter.

When you weren’t on snow, what were you doing?
I was living in New York this summer, traveling around a bit. Went to some weddings of friends and went to Europe a couple of times and was enjoying being off the snow a little bit—hitting the gym, hanging out with friends, going out for drinks. Normal summer stuff.

Get into any interesting personal projects?
Over the summer I did a couple of different things. I’d like to get into acting when I’m done with skiing. I know that’s polar opposites, but I had a couple of auditions over the summer, did a few vocal lessons in New York and had a guest spot on a show on ABC that comes out in December.

What’s scarier, an audition or dropping into a halfpipe?
I mean both are scary but I was definitely way more nervous for the acting stuff because it’s so foreign to me. I want it, but I’m at the very early stages of that. With skiing I’m nervous because I want to do well and there’s expectations, but I’ve also been doing it so long that I’m not as nervous about it.

Despite the nerves, you’ve had a monster couple of seasons. What’s contributed to that?
I think that a lot of it is just that the more experience you have, the better you get. When I was younger I was there ability-wise but not experience-wise, so I was foolish with my run choice or wouldn’t know when to hold back or when to push forward. I didn’t have the know-how that goes into competing.

Now, in the last few years, it’s been a culmination of doing it for a while and figuring that stuff out.

Also, I think that a couple of years ago I was trying to get to a place that I felt that I was comfortable in the sport because I kind of knew in the back of my mind that I wanted to come out and I was scared that I was going to get really judged for it. It ended up being an amazing experience, but I was nervous that I was going to be chastised for it, so I wanted to make sure that when I did get to that point, that I was at a point where even if you were going to talk shit on me, I was in a place where you couldn’t talk shit on my skiing. I wanted to feel secure to do that.

So, since last season I had kind of done that, I sort of felt like there were all eyes on me and I didn’t want to disappoint. I had goals in mind.

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Making his way down last year’s Slopestyle course. Photo: Baldwin (click to enlarge)

What’d it feel like to break your X Games streak last year?
It felt really good. It was incredible. I never would have predicted that my first X games podium would be in halfpipe. But I’ve always wanted that because it’s an awesome event. You have that huge crowd, it’s at night and I grew up watching it on TV so I think that was like a huge weight off my shoulders and that took a lot of weight off for slopestyle. I wasn’t feeling like, “Oh, now I’m struggling so hard to get a podium.” I already had a podium, I was having a great week. Even if I just left with one medal it’s as much as most people could potentially get. Then the pressure was off, and I skied well and medaled in slope.

How do you keep that momentum going into 2016?
Ha, I have no idea. I’m trying to stay humble, trying to stay hungry, and happy. Definitely looking forward to the beginning of the season.

Dew Tour is always a fun event. [I’m] looking forward to getting back competing and getting that feeling going again. It’s in my home state, I like Breckenridge so much, and I feel at ease with it. I’m just hoping it goes well.

You’ve been the center of a lot of media both snow and otherwise in the last few years. How do you stay focused?
I try and take everything as it comes. If I’m doing an interview or a photo shoot outside of skiing, then that’s my focus for that moment. I try and not think about anything else, to be present. And then when it’s done it’s done.

That’s how I’ve had to focus on multiple disciplines in skiing. For me I learned over a while that I can’t focus on all of them at once—it’ll stress me out.

So once I get the schedule and slopestyle is first, that’s all I’m thinking about, just slopestyle. I can’t think about pipe, or big air, I’ll start to overload myself and get worried. I still try and stay focused on the task at hand.

“I WAS NERVOUS THAT I WAS GOING TO BE CHASTISED FOR IT, SO I WANTED TO MAKE SURE THAT WHEN I DID GET TO THAT POINT, THAT I WAS AT A POINT WHERE EVEN IF YOU WERE GOING TO TALK SHIT ON ME.”

What are your initial reactions to the Dew Tour changes this year?
I think that it’s cool that they are making changes. One of the things I love about slopestyle is that its always different in terms of the course, and things do change, but with that being said, it’s always kind of the same. Sometimes it’s three jumps, sometimes it’s four, the rails are changing, but are similar.

So I like this, the dramatic change in the course and the format, the change in the criteria with no finals qualification. It’s refreshing.

I don’t know what it will mean for me, if I will do well with it, but I’m excited to have something new and different. I think there’s a lot of opportunity for sure.

How do you approach courses like these?
It makes me excited. One thing I like about competing is figuring it out, figuring out a run. I think that’s one thing that I’ve gotten better at with that experience. I’ve gotten better with planning a run, and knowing what I need to cover with variations and features and all of that.

With this Dew course with the way they set it up, there’s more options than ever, so I’m really excited to get there and see if in person and then figure it out from there.

Before your first drop-in of the season at a major competition, is it nerves, is it stoke, is it Wu-tang? What’s going on upstairs?
I think it’s a mix of nerves and stoke. There’s definitely first contest jitters, but I’m always stoked and definitely stoked to be starting up the season. I think there’s more excitement this year because there’s no qualifying. That’s usually really nerve-wracking.