"When it came time to tell the world I mean I was really scared," Kenworthy tells PEOPLE

By Tiare Dunlap
Updated July 11, 2016 08:50 PM
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Credit: Theo Wargo/WireImage

In October 2015, Olympic freeskier Gus Kenworthy became the first action sports athlete to come out as gay on the cover of ESPN magazine.

“At that point I had told my friends and family but when it came time to tell the world I mean I was really scared,” Kenworthy, 24, tells PEOPLE. “I didn’t know what was going to happen.”

What followed was a wave of support for the silver medalist, from athletes, celebrities and strangers alike. Kenworthy was inundated with messages, but one kind stood out.

“What made me most happy about coming was getting messages from kids saying that my article made it easier for them to come to terms with themselves or for them to talk to their parents about being gay,” he says.

Capping off a spectacular season including four X Games medals and winning the European Freeski Open, Kenworthy is nominated for an ESPY award in the Best Male Action Sports Athlete category.

“It’s crazy to be nominated because I’m up against athletes from all different action sports,” he says. “It’s definitely an honor and I’m really excited.”

RELATED VIDEO: Gus Kenworthy Shares Why He Chose to Come Out

Now in the offseason, the Telluride, Colorado native has been putting his celebrity to good use, from speaking out for the LGBTQ community following the mass shooting in Orlando to visiting refugee camps in Uganda for an upcoming OIympic Channel docu-series.

“It was really emotional, intense and eye-opening,” Kenworthy says of the week he spent interviewing refugees about the role sports play in their lives.

“I was interviewing the people in the camps and I would ask them where they were from and they would tell me horror stories of their families being murdered and their houses being burned down and so much loss and sadness,” he continues.

For many of the people Kenworthy met, participating in running and athletics clubs represented the only outlet from life in the camps. “It was so inspiring to participate in sports with them,” he says.

This August, the Rio Olympics will host the first ever team of refugees to compete in the games. These ten athletes will represent the more than 60 million refugees and displaced people around the globe.

Kenworthy says the individuals he spoke with felt the creation of this team brought a sense of hope.

“One thing that I heard a lot was that it gives them hope,” he says. “I think it also brings much-needed recognition to the plight and the struggle that they’re dealing with.”

Kenworthy says he looks forward to cheering the refugee team on next month. He’ll be watching the games stateside, so those of you hoping he would find some adorable dogs to rescue (like he did at the Winter Games in Sochi) in Rio will have to sit tight until the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang.

As for those Russian strays that melted hearts around the globe?

“They live with my ex. He’s the one that flew back with them after Russia and is an amazing dog owner,” Kenworthy says. ” They lived with me for the first year of their lives and have been with him since. They are very loved, happy and thriving.”

Voting for the ESPYs is open now through Wednesday at 8 PM ET when the ceremony airs.