The expectations placed on any top tier athlete are often unfathomable to the rest of us. And that pressure is exacerbated for Olympic athletes, who have the hopes of entire countries to consider as they compete for their places at the podium. But no one's shoulders are arguably more weighted down this Olympics than those of Gus Kenworthy, one of two openly gay American athletes competing at the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea. Gus Kenworthy knows all about managing the projections of others and, in the end, focusing on what truly matters — not only for himself but for his community and for the people who have aided him in living his most authentic life. From an interview room in PyeongChang, Kenworthy spoke to Romper via telephone about bucking other people's expectations, reprioritizing what truly matters — especially as all eyes are on the freestyle skier during the Winter Games — and making those who have supported him proud.
"I think it's always difficult when you have expectations because you kind of put a lot of pressure on yourself, and I want to live up to people's expectations and I want to do the best I possibly can for my country and my community and my family and myself," Kenworthy says. "But at the end of the day, you kind of have to put that stuff aside, because I really have no control over the outcome. All I can do is just ski the best that I can and land my run and then just be positive, win or lose, and do so gracefully. To have a smile and just try and be a good role model, because everything else is out of my control."
There are so many people who say, 'Who cares that he's gay? It's 2018, no one cares.' But then I'll also read the comments on something about myself and see a ton of negative stuff about me being gay.
And while Olympians are often touted as role models, for better or for worse, it's not lost on Kenworthy that as an openly gay Olympian, he's been shouldered with the burden, and the privilege, of being a role model to multiple communities. Because, yes, even though it's 2018, being an openly gay athlete is not only noteworthy, it's history in the making. When Figure Skating's Adam Rippon was announced as a member of the 2018 U.S. Olympic team in Dec. 2017, he became the first openly gay athlete to compete in the Winter Olympics. In 2018. This year's Winter Olympics has only 13 "out" LGBTQ athletes competing in total, across all the countries and teams: an Olympic record. In 2018.
So while a human being's sexual orientation should no longer be a revelation, Kenworthy knows that as a nation, and a world, we've only progressed so far. It matters that he represents the LGBTQ community at the Winter Games. Representation, then, now, and always, matters.
"In 2018, it kind of goes both ways. There are so many people who say, 'Who cares that he's gay? It's 2018, no one cares.' But then I'll also read the comments on something about myself and see a ton of negative stuff about me being gay," Kenworthy tells Romper. "So I think that the only way to change perceptions is through visibility and through representation. I think that it's important that I'm out and that Adam is out and that we're here and competing and we're proud."
That's why it was important to Kenworthy that he partner with Head & Shoulders for their "Shoulders of Greatness" campaign, which highlights the different pressures and expectations people carry on their shoulders, and how those pressures can often motivate individuals to overcome adversity and achieve greatness. As one of the most popular Olympians headed into the Winter Games, Kenworthy had plenty of brands, companies, and sponsors to choose from. But with inclusivity at the forefront of his mind, he was selective about picking his campaigns. In a recent Head & Shoulders commercial, Kenworthy says, "My shoulders carry more than my country's pride. They carry my community's pride, my family's pride, and pride in myself."
The commercial features a pride flag; a first for the company and a first that Kenworthy is proud to be part of.
"The fact that there is a pride flag in the commercial, and the first time that was ever done on national TV in an ad, is just amazing," Kenworthy says. "It just speaks to how inclusive they are as a brand and how supportive they are of me and the fact that I'm a gay man and how much they wanted to active around that."
I would have told myself, at a younger age, that it was OK to be myself.
According to The Trevor Project, a national organization that provides crisis and suicide prevention to LGBTQ youth, LGBTQ youth seriously contemplate suicide at three times the rate of heterosexual youth. And 34 percent of LGBTQ students are bullied at school, according to a 2015 national Youth Risk Behavior Survey. A pride flag featured in a nationwide commercial might not seem like a big deal to some, but to Kenworthy it is, especially when he looks back at the heartache he experienced while in the closet.
"I spent a lot of years in high school and in the beginning of my ski career trying so desperately to fit the mold of what I thought I was supposed to be, as a high school kid and as a professional athlete trying to make it in this sport," Kenworthy says. "I think that took a toll."
When asked what Kenworthy wishes he could say to his younger self during that time period, the Olympian responded: "I would have told myself, at a younger age, that it was OK to be myself."
[My mom] always encouraged me to be myself, and told me how important it is, and how much she loved me, regardless. I think she just wanted me to know that I was supported and loved and, well, she has always been my number one fan. I can't thank her enough.
And while being a proud, out, gay man competing in the Winter Olympics does put some added pressure on Kenworthy, he welcomes that pressure because it comes with a heap of support. "As much as it does put more pressure on me, and there are more people watching, there's also so much more support given to me than there ever was in the past," he shares. "I have an amazing community behind me and rooting for me, and I'm excited for that."
That community, of course, includes his mother, who Kenworthy says played a pivotal role in supporting him in living his authentic life. "I think I knew, even before I told her I was gay, that she kind of knew," Kenworthy tells Romper. "She always encouraged me to be myself and told me how important it is, and how much she loved me, regardless. I think she just wanted me to know that I was supported and loved and, well, she has always been my number one fan. I can't thank her enough."
As the country prepares to cheer Team USA on, it's safe to assume there will be parents from coast to coast unable to thank Kenworthy enough, too. Because, somewhere, there's a kid with their sights set on being an Olympic freestyle skier. And that kid will have a role model that reminds them that fulfilling other people's expectations is never as important as being true to who you are.
You can watch Kenworthy and the rest of the U.S. Olympians compete in the 2018 Winter Games in PyeongChang on NBC.