IN CONVERSATION WITH GUS KENWORTHY
Interview by Jana Letonja
Gus Kenworthy is a British-American Olympic silver medalist in freeskiing, actor, model and advocate. Gus is known as one of the best all-around park skiers of all time and is one of the only athletes to have podium finishes across all three disciplines (slopestyle, halfpipe and big air). He has recently been a contestant on Fox’s reality quasi-military training series ‘Special Forces: World’s Toughest Test’.
Gus, you were discovered by the international skiing world when you posted a one-minute video of yourselfon the slopes of Telluride. What made you fall in love with skiing, especially freestyle skiing?
Honestly, I fell in love with skiing because everyone that I loved did it. Neither of my parents were avid skiers, no one was pushing it onto me. It just happened that we ended up in Colorado and I started doing it. My mom learned how to ski at the same time that I did and we kind of fell in love with the sport together. I’m the youngest of three boys, so it always created a healthy sibling rivalry. To be the youngest, I was always chasing them around, trying to do better than them and it allowed me to progress and get better more quickly than I might have otherwise. And then I had a really good group of friends that all skied and started doing competitions and it was my whole world.
I was initially put into a racing program and it didn’t even last for more than a month because I didn’t want to be doing the same thing as everybody else. Racing is really structured and rigid and you’re waking up really early and you’re all training in the same way. And so even though it’s an individual sport, it’s much more of a team mentality and a lot more discipline and there’s a lot more rules. And I kind of didn’t like that about it. I wanted to have more freedom.
Then I was put into a mogul program doing bumps and jumps. I did that for a few seasons when I was young and I enjoyed it. But the aspect of it that I liked the most was the jumps. I just wanted to be doing tricks and spinning around in the air. And it was kind of around that same time that Telluride started to build its first terrain park and so that’s where I wanted to be all the time. That’s how I fell in with my friend group because they were also wanting to do that same thing. It was like this little gang of kids that were just obsessed with the train park and doing tricks and spinning around and trying to copy things that we had seen in the movies and push each other to do the next crazy thing. It felt really fun. Every day there was something new to be learned and it was exciting.
You’re known as one of the best all-around park skiers of all time, are one of the only to have podium finishes across all three disciplines (slopestyle, halfpipe and big air) and were the first to do many groundbreaking trick in each. On top of this, you also won a silver medal at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi. How do all these achievements make you feel?
When I was rising through the ranks in the professional circuit, I had a lot of people tell me that I was going to have to stop competing in all the disciplines, stop doing halfpipe and slope style and big air and just focus on one. You could maybe do big air and slope style cause they’re similar, but if you wanted to do those two, you shouldn’t be doing half-pipe. And if you wanted to be doing half-pipe, you shouldn’t be doing the other. It’s really taxing on your body and it’s dangerous and it doesn’t completely translate from one discipline to the next. A lot of people were like “You’ll be good at all of them, but you’ll never be great at any of them if you keep doing all three”.
I never knew how to choose, so I just didn’t. I enjoyed them both. Slope style is more competitive, there’s more people that do it, it’s a harder discipline to break through in. I’m proud of myself that I didn’t ever choose. I got to go to the Olympics for half-pipe and for slopestyle, and I got to win medals at the big events.
When I was younger, I remember writing down on paper that I want to compete at the X Games, want to win a medal at X Games, half-pipe under the lights and go to the Olympics. To know that I’ve checked off a lot of those boxes feels really good. I’m proud of my career and of the fact that I did it for a really long time.
Olympics 2022 were your last competition. Why did you know then was the right time to retire from professional sport?
I had considered retiring after the 2018 Olympics because in that moment I was burnt out. Talking about a long career, I did it for professionally for 15 years. So within that, there’s peaks and valleys and moments where you’re really excited about it and you love what you’re doing and other moments where you’re kind of dragging your feet and you wish you didn’t have to go to this training camp or wish you didn’t have to go to this competition or whatever.
I think in 2018 I was sort of ready to be done, but I just felt like I had more in the tank. I felt like I could keep going and so I decided I wasn’t gonna quit. I went for four more years and made it back to the Olympics. I dedicated my performance to my mom. It wasn’t the performance I necessarily wanted. I was training with a really specific run in my mind that I wanted to do and that’s how I wanted to go out. I had a couple of bad injuries, concussions and Covid, it was this perfect storm of everything happening right in the 11th hour, so I was struggling. I was actually proud of myself to just get there and get through all of that. I made it to the finals and I put a run down that I was happy with, but it wasn’t the run that I wanted to do. At the top, when I could hear the announcers saying “This is his last competition, this is his last competition run ever”, I remember feeling really emotional because it hit me then how big this moment was for me.
As far as why I know I was at the end, there’s no way I could keep going. I could probably go for another season or two, but all along I knew that I wanted to end my career at the Olympics. The Olympics is the world stage, it’s so big and I always felt like that’s where I was gonna call it quits.
In 2015, you came out on the cover of ESPN Magazine and became the first openy gay professional athlete in any action sport. Then at 2018 Olympics, you also made history by being one of 2 openly gay men to compete for the US in Winter Olympics. Why was this milestone such an important moment for you and also for sport in general?
It was an important moment for me just because it was a huge relief. I had carried around the burden of holding onto that secret for such a long time and it had been eating me up inside. I felt like I wasn’t ever going to be able to come out while I was competing, cause there hadn’t been anyone that had done it. It was kind of a leap of faith and that’s why it was so impactful. For me, It was the relief and the freedom that came with that announcement. But the bigger thing was that I knew it was going to reach other people that were feeling the same way or a similar way. And that’s the whole reason that I did it publicly.
I wanted to tell my story in my words and explain why it was hard for me and how it probably is hard for other people and give context, so anyone else in my sport could see that and realize that language they were using was homophobic and things that they were saying were actually making it more difficult for me to come out. And hopefully in turn they would change those habits so the next person coming out would have an easier time.
The amount of messages that I got from people and even to this day, almost 10 years later, I still have people come up to me and say that interview helped them come out, I think that’s more important than any of the medals or trophies. That actually has an impact on someone. In terms of having an impact, that’s what I’m the most proud of. And then to get to go back to the Olympics and be out and be one of two openly gay athletes, the first two openly gay athletes for the US and at Winter Olympics was a crazy honor and I feel like it was a beacon of hope for a lot of closeted athletes at different levels.
boots EMPORIO ARMANI
Last year you started the Worthy Foundation to give back to the LGBTQ+ community. Tell us more about your foundation, its mission and its vision.
I’ve always wanted to have an impact and to give back to the community. I get asked to do so many different things and sometimes it’s hard to pick where you’re gonna focus your efforts. If I’m doing stuff for 10 different charities and they’re all totally different, one’s for animal rescue and one’s for something else and one’s for LGBTQ youth, it starts to feel a little diluted. So I created the Worthy Foundation as a place to have all of my philanthropic efforts centralized. If I go do an appearance for a sponsor and they’re gonna make a donation in my honor, they’re donating to the Worthy Foundation. At the end of the year, we are going to make significant contributions to one or two LGBTQ non-profits, but instead of having a ton of little donations, it’s actually going to be a big meaningful donation and something that can create positive change.
In 2019, I did the AIDS Life Cycle ride, which is this big bike ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles. It’s like 550 miles. I raised over a quarter of a million dollars and it was incredible. It felt so good to be able to raise that much money. I want to be able to continue to fundraise and I want to be able to use my platform to raise money and give it to good causes. Each and every year it’ll be a different charity, but it’ll all be for the LGBTQ community.
Besides this, you also work with the Trevor Project among others, which is a nonprofit organization focused on suicide prevention efforts among LGBTQ+ youth. Why do you think suicide prevention amongst LGBTQ+ youth is so important and why this is such a big issue in the world?
Suicide prevention is obviously so important because it’s saving a life. But also, the suicide rates are much higher amongst the LGBTQ community than our straight counterparts. When you’re a kid, you’re already struggling to figure out who you are, whether you’re straight or not. Adolescence is an awkward time and it’s scary and frightening. Then to add on a layer of being, especially in a place that’s not necessarily inclusive or a home that’s not inclusive or a community that doesn’t allow you to be yourself, it’s a lot of weight and it oftentimes translates into kids feeling doomed and looking to suicide as a way out. And it’s really sad. I’ve been there myself, I considered suicide when I was young. I was in a dark place because I hated who I was and it was something I had no control over.
Now, I’m on the other side of that and I’m so grateful that I never did anything to hurt myself because I am so proud to be gay. I love the life that I have and the chosen family that I’ve created with all of my friends. I feel like I have such deep emotional connections with my friends in a way that a lot of straight men don’t have and struggle to have. And I think that’s why the Trevor Project is so important. I want that same realization to happen for all of those young people that are feeling down and in despair, because being gay is a journey and coming out and accepting yourself is sometimes a struggle. I want anyone to know that it does get better and to be able to look back on it years later and be so happy that they went through that struggle because they’re in such a better place. The work that the Trevor Project does is just incredible. Offering assistance to young people who are in that place and certified therapists and counselors and people that are able to give them the professional help they need and give them advice and be a sounding board is so important.
You also work with The Humane Society International, working around the globe to promote the human-animal bond and confront cruelty in all its forms. What makes human-animal bond so special and precious in your opinion?
I don’t think that there is a love or a connection that is more pure than the human animal connection and the connection that you have with a pet. When I come home and my dogs are so excited that I’m home, their tails are wagging and they’re letting out these little squeaks, it feels so good. There’s not a person in my life that’s that excited to see me. And there’s not a person in my life that I’m as excited to see. Pets are so special and it’s such a beautiful thing to have an animal.
The work that the Humane Society International does is so important. They try to put a stop to animal cruelty. We have this special connection with animals, but they can’t directly communicate their wants and their needs, so I think that it’s important to be a mouthpiece for them and try help their conditions and give them homes and make them safe and feel loved.
At 2014 Olympics you gained international recognition after you saved three stray puppies and their mother from euthanization. Why do you believe animal rescue is so important and more people should do it? And also, why is it better than buying animals from breeders?
There’s an even additional level of love that you get from a rescue animal because I think that they do deep down understand that you saved them. There’s love and respect there. Why buy this animal or that animal when there’s another equally good animal, just as worthy and special and lovable, that needs you. And especially in places that have kill shelters and these animals are facing a clock basically to be rescued or be put down. I think it’s so important to try and give those animals a second chance.
The dogs in Russia, they were gonna be exterminated because they were trying to clear all these dogs off the street. I just wanted to do something, I felt forever indebted to them. The Humane Society International helped out so much. The mother dog of that family in Russia is my mom’s dog. I feel so fortunate that I was able to give her that dog and change her life. She has a companion and she has this creature that she just loves so much and is with her every day. To think that dog would’ve been killed because it was just existing in Russia and they didn’t want it to show up on a broadcaster in the Olympics is crazy to me. And I think hat’s true for all shelter pets. They all deserve to live and find their forever homes.
Gus, you’re the ambassador for Prada. What makes you love fashion and what makes you connect with Prada in particular?
Everybody loves Prada. I feel like all of their collections are always beautiful and timeless and they kind of walk the line of being edgy, but also just being so classy and tasteful. I like fashion kind of in the same way that I loved freestyle skiing, because you have this creativity and an opportunity to express yourself. You show up at a slopestyle course and there are all these different features and you get to choose what run you want to do, which features you want to hit, what tricks you want to do, how you want to do them. There’s a ton of creativity. It’s really artistic and it’s one of the things I love about the sport and it’s also what I love about fashion. I did not think I am the most adventurous person when it comes to fashion. I often wear a lot of the same things, but it’s also because those are what I feel comfortable in, what I feel like I look good in and what makes me feel good. And I think that is what fashion does for anyone. It’s an outlet to express yourself, to feel good and to feel comfortable and confident.
full look DOLCE & GABBANA
The past few months we’ve been able to watch you in Fox’s reality series ‘Special Forces: World’s Toughest Test’, which saw you endure kind of military training. How would you describe your experience on the show? What did you take from the show that you’ll carry on in your life?
My whole experience on the show was a truly crazy experience. To be in the middle of nowhere in the Middle East in a desert, sleeping on cots next to a Spice Girl is insane. It was a fun experience though. I made a lot of friends and I am so grateful for the experience because it’s something that I wouldn’t have done otherwise. My oldest brother is a Marine, so some of the training that I had to do on the show is similar to stuff that he had to do in real life, in real training. And even though I already had so much respect for him, it gave me a newfound respect for the sacrifices that he made and that everyone in the military makes. It gave me an additional perspective.
In terms of what I took from it, I kind of learned a lesson on how not to be so hard on myself and also not quite so competitive. I was really thinking about it as a competition and was beating myself up on any challenges that didn’t go perfectly or didn’t go my way. And ultimately it wasn’t actually about that. There was no prize at the end. We were there to try and better ourselves and come together as a team.
talent GUS KENWORTHY @guskenworthy
photographer TORIAN LEWIN @torianlewin
stylist TORIAN LEWIN @torianlewin
groomer MARK ALAN ESPARZA @mark.alan.hair
styling assistant EDLYN CASTRO @eedz_c
editor TIMI LETONJA @timiletonja