While winning Olympic medals is an undeniable feat, Gus Kenworthy believes his legacy has much more to do with his impact off the slopes.
In an essay penned for The Queer Bible, exclusively shared with E! News and excerpted below, the 29-year-old freestyle skier reflected on his and pal Adam Rippon's significance as two of the first openly gay American men to compete in the winter games at the 2018 Olympics.
Recalling their history as friends and supporters, Kenworthy vividly described how they got in touch with each other before making the cut to compete in Pyeongchang and the moment they finally met—before walking out together for the Opening Ceremony.
For that poignant moment between the two athletes, how Rippon helped give what Kenworthy described as "the permission to be more myself" and why Kenworthy calls a single kiss his "purpose in Korea," just keep reading!
Adam Rippon by Gus Kenworthy
I was aware of Adam before we actually ever met. We were both on the qualification journey to the 2018 Winter Olympics, trying to earn spots in our respective sports and we were getting a bit of media attention because we were the only two openly gay men trying to make the team. When I began following his journey, I knew almost nothing about him or about figure skating in general, but as a fellow gay man I was rooting for him. It seemed he was rooting for me, too, because on 12 December 2017 he messaged me saying, "I think you're so awesome and I SO admire you for being yourself. You also have my dream teeth. I hope we get the chance to meet in Korea! Until then . . ." It was such a kind and wholesome message and it came in the midst of my selection events when I truly needed it. I wrote him back asking him about his qualification process and letting him know that I was cheering him on, too. He earned his spot first—the figure skating and free-skiing events don't line up on the same dates—and I earned mine about a week and a half after him, and we knew that we would both be going to the Games as the first two openly gay men in Winter Olympics' history. It was very exciting.
My first Olympics in 2014 I was in the closet, and although I won a silver medal, I don't think I really enjoyed my time there, and the subsequent media tour that followed caused me tremendous turmoil because I felt like a fraud. I knew that getting to go back to a second Games as my honest, authentic self was going to be a much different experience, but I had no idea how much better it was going to be and how important Adam would be in that experience. There was an interview before the Games where NBC asked Adam what it was like to be a gay athlete, to which he responded, "It's just like being a straight athlete, but with better eyebrows." I howled when I saw the quote. Adam being so boldly himself in turn gave me the permission to be more myself. I feel like I came into my own when I came out. Until that point I had kept my cards so close to my chest that I had really stifled my sense of humor and a lot of the things that make me, me. Even though I was now being myself, I found myself falling into old tendencies and seeing Adam be so blatantly, well . . . Adam, gave me permission to do the same. To really let my guard down.
Even though I didn't win a medal in 2018, I felt proud showcasing my authentic self to the world. My family and my boyfriend at the time, Matt, were there cheering me on, and it was incredible to have their support. Before I went up to take my run in the final round of our competition, I hugged my family and kissed my boyfriend—a very casual, normal, insignificant kiss. I didn't really think anything of it at the time but unbeknownst to me the whole thing was being filmed and broadcast around the world. After the competition everybody was asking me about "that kiss"! At first I didn't even know what they were talking about. In a way that kiss, that moment, was kind of my legacy for those Games. And even though it was an "insignificant" kiss it was actually probably one of the most significant kisses of my life. That kiss was beamed into televisions around the world, into living rooms in countries where homosexuality is still not accepted or where it's still illegal. That kiss was seen by parents who have struggled to accept their gay sons and by young gay athletes who have feared there might not be a future for them in sports. Gay representation—whether it's on TV, in pop culture, in sports, or just in our daily lives—is what has helped normalize and destigmatize homosexuality in society and I think that kiss did a lot in terms of normalization. That kiss was my purpose in Korea, whether I knew it or not, and getting to be myself, out and proud alongside Adam Rippon, was one of the greatest privileges of my career.
For the upcoming 2022 Winter Olympics I'll be competing for Team Great Britain. I was born in Essex and my mum's English. My dad's American but he was working in London when he met my mum. They fell in love and had three boys, the last of which was me. We moved to the States when I was three, so I grew up in the States and have always thought of myself as American, but I hold dual citizenship. There were a lot of factors in my decision to switch teams, but the biggest was to honor my mum. For two full Olympic cycles she's come to World Cups and qualifying events, dressed in stars and stripes and waving an American flag, cheering me and my teammates on even though she's not American. This time, I want to pay tribute to her and hold up the Union Jack to let her know that I'm as proud of my English mum as she is of her half-English son.
Adam is funny and brazen and bold and self-deprecating, all while oozing confidence. He's almost impossible not to like and within minutes of meeting him I knew we were going to be friends for life. Unlike the Summer Olympics where all the athletes are housed together, in the Winter Olympics the villages are spread out over two or more locations. In Korea there was a coastal village and a mountain village that were about an hour and a half from one another. Adam was in the coastal village and I was in the mountain village, so we hadn't met prior to the opening ceremony. That night I was looking for him everywhere because it was the first time that the athletes from all the different sports had been in the same place at once. As I was looking for him I was filming it on my Instagram story, going up to each and every person asking, "Adam? Adam? Is that you?" It started as kind of a joke because there were literally hundreds of people and everyone's wearing the exact same outfit, but then I worried I may not actually find him in this sea of stars and stripes. I did, though. And when I did, he screamed at the top of his lungs, threw his hands up, and jumped on me, wrapping his legs around my waist. Everybody, athletes and coaches from other countries, turned to see what was happening and Adam just hugged me, not caring how extra and dramatic it was. He is truly unapologetically himself and it's one of my favorite things about him.
At the opening ceremony you end up waiting for hours in the staging area before actually getting to walk out into the arena, so I plopped down beside him, surrounded by figure skaters I'd never met, and we did what we do best: talk. We talked and talked and really just became instant friends. I know it's a bit cliché but I truly felt like I had known him for my whole life. Normally when you walk out you're kind of expected to stick with the people from your sport, but I willingly abandoned the skiers without hesitation to walk with Adam and the figure skaters. As we took our first few steps into the stadium, with lights flashing everywhere and thousands of people screaming and cheering, Adam grabbed my hand and quickly squeezed it tightly, then he let go and we both started waving to the crowd and the cameras. It was a moment I'll never forget for the rest of my life. The first time an openly gay man walked into a Winter Olympics opening ceremony—and it was not just a man, it was two. Holding hands. It's so surreal to think back on.
Adam is a trailblazer, for the LGBTQ+ community, for gay kids in sports, and for me. I think, to use snow as an analogy, it's a lot easier to walk across a field of snow when someone else has done it first. So in my sport I certainly feel like I did that for other people and I certainly feel I was the first one out in my sport and any action sport. I set that trail to make it easier for someone else. For my post-ski career? I think Adam has set the trail for me. He's made a path in the snow, so hopefully it will be a smoother walk.
Adapted from THE QUEER BIBLE by Jack Guinness, published by Dey Street Books. Copyright © 2021 by Gus Kenworthy. Adapted courtesy of HarperCollinsPublishers.