In his own words, last year was “tough” for Gus Kenworthy

By Adam Carlson
February 21, 2018 03:53 PM
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In his own words, last year was “tough” for Gus Kenworthy.

The 26-year-old freeskier, who earned a silver medal at the 2014 Winter Olympics, faced burnout and a less-than-stellar number of podium finishes. He thought to himself, make it to 2018, make it to the South Korean Games.

Kenworthy came out publicly as gay in October 2015, on the cover of ESPN the Magazine, and remains the most visible LGBT action sports competitor in the country. He was in the closet four years ago, in Sochi, Russia, but making it back as his true self would be a win beyond one person.

“I kind of had told myself, like, ‘I just want to make it to the Olympics and then I’m done, I don’t want to keep doing this sport ’til I hate it,’ ” says Kenworthy, who is sponsored by Head & Shoulders and is the face of their “Shoulders of Greatness” campaign.

“But I’ve had the most fun this year that I’ve had in as long as I can remember, and despite injuries and the Olympics maybe not going my way, it’s been one of my favorite seasons,” he tells PEOPLE in the mountains of Pyeongchang, South Korea.

Then he hints toward the future: “I don’t know, I think I’ll probably keep going, maybe try and make it four more years.”

Around the Games: Day 2 - Winter Olympic Games
Gus Kenworthy
| Credit: Ker Robertson/Getty

A few minutes later, Kenworthy sounds more circumspect about 2022, clearly still weighing his options: “It’s a long ways away, but I’m not deciding anything quite yet.”

Maybe, he says, he’ll pursue acting like his boyfriend, Matthew Wilkas, and begin splitting his time in Los Angeles and New York City, away from his native Colorado.

There’s still his most recent Olympics to process: As he wanted, Kenworthy made it to the 2018 Winter Games and with figure skater Adam Rippon then made history as the two first openly gay men to compete there for Team USA.

The two are also “fast friends,” delighting their social media followers with selfies together and supportive messages back and forth.

On the snow in Korea, however, Kenworthy saw disappointment: After a strong qualifying Tuesday in the men’s slopestyle event, where he was a defending medalist, he had three sub-par runs in the final and finished last.

But a throwaway moment beforehand — at least to him — became its own kind of win. NBC aired a quick pre-competition kiss between Kenworthy and Wilkas, in what the LGBT sports news site Outsports hailed as “a first.”

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Gus Kenworthy competing during the 2018 Winter Olympics
| Credit: Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

“That kiss was something that was unexpected — I mean, not the kiss was unexpected, I kiss him before any contest run — but I didn’t know there was a camera there and I didn’t expect the reaction that it got,” Kenworthy says. “But I think it’s so awesome, I think it’s like the best thing, because I think that visibility is so important. And when you’re part of an underrepresented or marginalized community, it’s sometimes hard to see yourself in the public eye.”

In the more than two years since he came out, Kenworthy says he’s not tried to shy away from living at least some of his personal life publicly, the same as any notable straight athlete.

“In my previous relationship, I was dating a guy for five years and I was in the closet and so I wasn’t posting anything about it, he wasn’t posting anything about it. We weren’t even telling our friends and family and it was because we were so afraid,” he says.

“And so for me, when I came out, that was something that I really wanted: I wanted to embrace who I was publicly and I didn’t want to come out but then not really talk about it again after that and not post about it. I wanted to just be really transparent with who I am, and so I’ve sort of realized what that visibility means.”

Others have, too.

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After his 12th-out-of-twelve performance in the men’s slopestyle finals this week, Kenworthy talked to many journalists, repeating basically the same things: He was disappointed and drained, even “bummed,” but he knew there was more to his life than another Olympic medal.

He looked about how he said he felt: okay.

But when he saw his family, amid their hugs, he heard something that made him cry, he tells PEOPLE. His brother told him: We couldn’t be prouder of you if you had won gold.

“It does suck,” Kenworthy says of his loss. “But I’ve had a medal at the Olympics, I sort of know how incredible that is, I got to experience that. And this Games, being out and proud, I think I had a whole new experience, and I think that both of them were incredible and I am proud of both of them.”

“I feel like you can’t have your cake and eat it too,” he says, “so I think this Olympics, being here, being myself, being authentic was the cake and a medal would have been icing. But it didn’t happen for me and I’m just trying to remember that it’s nothing that defines me.”

The 2018 Winter Olympics are airing live on NBC. To learn more, visit teamusa.org.