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Gus Kenworthy on life after retirement: ‘I want to make the world a safer place for LGBT+ people’

Patrick Kelleher March 4, 2022
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Gus Kenworthy in 2020.

Gus Kenworthy in 2020. (Tom Pennington/Getty)

Gus Kenworthy is trying to get his dog, Birdie, to stop barking so he can talk about his decision to retire from professional skiing. 

“This is the time, I don’t think I could keep going until I was 34,” he says as his dog barks in the background. “Birdie, stop! Hey!” he laughs.

When we talk, Gus has just arrived back in Los Angeles after a trip around the world. First, he went to Beijing to compete in the Winter Olympics, and from there, he went to London and then to Milan. It’s been a busy few months – now, he’s looking forward to spending some time relaxing.

Just weeks ago, Gus competed in his last ever Olympics on Team GB. He announced his plans to retire ahead of the Games.

“It’s kind of a decision where I could have made it for myself or it could have been made for me,” the 30-year-old explains. “It’s just a young sport, and it’s a hard sport to do for a long, long time. I’ve had a truly long career – I’ve been doing it professionally for like 14 years, and I’ve been to three Olympics.”

He says he “might” have been able to make it to another Olympics, but he didn’t feel up to another four years of “intense work”, and wanted to make sure he went out at the top of his game.

 

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Gus Kenworhty’s last Olympics was almost derailed

Because he knew it would be his last Olympics, Gus wanted to make sure it would be a special experience. He tried to stay “grounded and present” throughout, but some thorny conditions in Beijing made that difficult. 

“In the qualifying round, I actually wasn’t as nervous as I thought I would be, and then I fell in my first run and all of the nerves came – everything came flooding in, all these emotions that I had kept at bay,” Gus says.

“Our qualifying process is your best run of two, so I basically knew that I had one more chance and at the top, I started spiralling. I went down this rabbit hole of, ‘Oh my god, this is your last competition run.’ I was like, ‘Just smile at the bottom regardless of what happens, don’t throw a tantrum, don’t cry, just be appreciative.’ And then I was like, oh my god, f**k that, you’re literally already giving up on yourself.’ I had to kind of kick myself in the ass and put myself in overdrive.”

As a gay man, I didn’t think that duality could exist of being gay and also being a sports star.

In the end, he qualified, and bowed out of his Olympics career with an eighth place finish amid windy conditions.

“It was a difficult day,” he reflects. “The conditions were really hard and I felt like I had so much more I could have given, but it is what it is.”

It wasn’t the Olympics he hoped it would be, but Gus is still proud of his achievements as a professional skier. Most of all, he’s proud of his legacy as an openly queer athlete.

Gus Kenworthy at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.
Gus Kenworthy at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. (Clive Rose/Getty)

“That’s honestly the part of my career that I’m maybe the most proud of,” he says. “I think about how much I struggled in the closet, and the reason I was struggling was because I just really didn’t think there was room for me in sport. As a gay man, I didn’t think that duality could exist of being gay and also being a sports star.”

Gus once figured he would just stay in the closet until his professional skiing career was over.

“I didn’t ever picture the two co-existing. The fact that I got to the place where I could continue to compete and be out at the same time, that is something that I’m super proud of.”

Gus knows that he’s fortunate, and that plenty of queer athletes still feel that there’s no space for them to live openly.

“That’s an environment that sports, both individual and team sports, have cultivated. I think we now have to deconstruct and reconstruct it to make sure it’s a safe space for everybody. I do think that I’ve sort of helped with that discussion and there are obviously so many other athletes as well. I do think it’s an important discussion because sport should be for everybody.”

Part of the problem is that LGBT+ athletes working at a professional level often have to compete in countries where their humanity isn’t respected. In 2014, Gus competed at the Winter Olympics in Russia, where the promotion of homosexuality is prohibited. He wasn’t even out as gay at that time, but he still felt the effects of that oppression.

 

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“Although I would never want to say that being in the closet is a privilege because it’s not at all, I think I did have the privilege of being straight presenting,” he reflects. “I wasn’t out, but I wasn’t fearful, but I still wasn’t at ease. I knew there was legislation in place that was against me specifically. They said heading into the games that nobody, no athletes, no people from the media, no diplomats, would be exempt from persecution. I knew that I was not welcomed, and that was a weird experience.

“I feel like I’ve had to become good at compartmentalising, because you have to be able to focus and you have to be able to tune into the task at hand and be in the moment regardless of what’s happening in your life. It’s a skill, but it’s almost like a survival mechanism as well.”

Gus was afraid that coming out would cost him sponsorship deals, which in skiing, he says, is how you make a living.

“In actuality it was the opposite. I feel like I was opened up to this whole new audience – I gained a following I couldn’t even have dreamed of, and most brands these days are really excited to tell a story of authenticity and to lift up an athlete for who they are outside of the sports arena.”

When talking about LGBT+ rights and persecution, Gus is keenly aware of his privilege as a cis, white, gay man – he says he’s “sort of at the top of the privilege pyramid” and has “the least to worry about compared to so many other people in the community”.

Gus Kenworthy attends the LA Special Screening of Apple TV+'s "Visible: Out On Television" at The West Hollywood EDITION on February 25, 2020.
Gus Kenworthy attends the LA Special Screening of Apple TV+’s “Visible: Out On Television” at The West Hollywood EDITION on February 25, 2020. (Rodin Eckenroth/Getty)

“I feel like I want to help where I can and use that privilege to help make the world a smoother, safer place for everyone, and right now, that’s trans people that are really being persecuted.”

Trans athletes are under attack by the media, sports officials and certain athletes – none of which is new. But right now, in the US especially, there is also an unprecedented push to enact laws banning trans student athletes from competing as who they are.

Many of those laws are being pushed through by lawmakers who have made violent, shockingly transphobic comments about children. What would Gus say to them, if he had the chance?

“I mean, what would I say to them? ‘F**k you,'” he says. “It’s so egregious to me. They do these horrible, hurtful things, and they try to disguise it as traditional values or safety for their children when in fact it’s the exact opposite. They want teachers to out students to their parents – that’s not helping anyone be safe, that’s potentially putting a kid in a really risky situation or an unsafe environment. It’s such a personal process and it needs to be done by each and every person in their own time when they feel safe to do it. To think that a teacher could out a kid to potentially abusive parents is just horrific.”

They say they hate abortion because they care about children, but then they don’t give a s**t about those children if those kids grow up to be gay or trans

He’s equally disturbed by efforts in Texas to investigate parents who organise gender-affirming care, such as puberty blockers, for their children and teenagers.

“It’s absolutely disgusting to me. They say, ‘What if this kid changes their mind?’ Well, f**king talk to trans people then, because they’re the ones that have lived this experience and that’s not their concern. All of these laws are so asinine to me. They say they hate abortion because they care about children, but then they don’t give a s**t about those children if those kids grow up to be gay or trans or whatever it is. They have no problem kicking them out of the house and having them on the street. It’s really f**ked up.”

As an ally, he’s angry – and understandably so. Trans rights are being rolled back, and young people are under attack from elected representatives who are supposed to be protecting them. But Gus, and other high-profile LGBT+ figures like him, have the power to draw attention to the issues the community is facing – and that’s what he’s determined to do.

 

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In 2019, he completed a 545 mile cycle from San Francisco to Los Angeles as part of the AIDS/LifeCycle fundraiser. He wants to do more to give back to the LGBT+ community.

“I’ve been so lucky in my career. A lot of incredible things have come my way, and so I feel like it would be particularly selfish to accept all of those incredible things and not give back. I feel very lucky to be part of the LGBTQ community. I love this community and I love being queer, it is one of my favourite things about myself. I love it, but because of that I also want to give back to this community.”

Gus Kenworthy is going to keep honing his acting craft – and a memoir could be down the road

Aside from philanthropy, the future for Gus is a little uncertain right now. He’s interested in making a podcast or starting an interview series, and he’s also toying with the idea of writing a memoir – something in the style of David Sedaris. If he did write something, it would be “funny and sarcastic”, he says. 

Gus Kenworthy poses for a portrait during the Team USA Media Summit in 2018.
Gus Kenworthy poses for a portrait during the Team USA Media Summit in 2018. (Tom Pennington/Getty)

He also wants to keep acting. He famously starred in American Horror Story, and he’s hopeful more roles will present themselves in time. He took acting classes during the pandemic in a bid to brush up on his skills so he can be ready when auditions present themselves, and is interested in playing queer roles and in honing his comedy skills.

Ultimately, Gus says: “I don’t have a clear cut path in my mind for what the future holds, but I’m excited to take a little bit of a break right now, get re-centred and be at home with my boyfriend and my dogs and read and relax and just hang out for a second.” After three Olympics, and almost half his life spent working as a professional athlete, it’s safe to say he’s earned it.

 

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