Winter sports star Gus Kenworthy has a lot to thank his mom for. Her hometown is Chelmsford, Essex in southeast England, and also where he was born and the reason why he is able to compete in his third Winter Olympics.
Kenworthy won a slopestyle silver medal for the USA at Sochi 2014, but thanks to his British connections he’s now competing for Great Britain, with the chance to become the first male athlete to win an Olympic medal for GB in freestyle skiing at Beijing.
“Getting to represent my mom and that side of my heritage and my motherland, like, it’s great and that absolutely is a reason and that’s something I’m excited for,” Kenworthy told CNN ahead of the men’s freeski halfpipe events at Beijing 2022.
Having formerly competed for the US in two previous Winter Olympics, Kenworthy explains that only four athletes per team, discipline and gender can compete in each event so a part of the reason for his switch was due to “self-preservation.”
With access to the sport vastly greater in the US than the UK, it stands to reason that there would be many less competitive skiers in his country of birth.
“I would be lying if I didn’t say that it was an easier qualifying process,” Kenworthy said. “The US is a pretty arduous process.”
The pop-culture celebrity – Kenworthy starred in “American Horror Story’”– says he wants to change that lack of participation in the UK and hopes that his recognition as an athlete and personality could bring a wider audience to the sport.
“I think that hopefully seeing skiing and snowboarding at the Olympics will drum up interest in the sport and people will go out and rent skis, rent snowboards and try it out and hopefully fall in love with the sport the same way that I did,” he said.
“It’s obviously a really expensive sport, so I’m not expecting everybody to hop over to France for ski vacations. I just hope it gets people excited about the sport.”
For budding winter athletes in the UK, there are alternatives to jet-setting to the Alps, with indoor snowdomes in several cities, as well as many dry ski slopes across the country.
At times Kenworthy’s Olympic journey has read like a movie script.
Following his silver medal at Sochi in 2014, the now three-time Olympian went viral for rescuing a family of stray dogs while in Russia.
Kenworthy came out as gay in 2015 and became an inspirational representative and spokesperson for the LGBTQ+ community at the 2018 Games in PyeongChang, manifested in a kiss with boyfriend at the time, Matthew Wilkas, that was captured and broadcast on TV and became a symbol of the growing acceptance of LGBTQ+ athletes and people at the Games and in sport.
“I have to pinch myself,” he said. “I actually can’t believe the things that I’ve gotten to do, the places I’ve gotten to go, the people I’ve met, the opportunities that have presented themselves to me because of the success that I’ve had in the sport and the Olympics and the platform that it’s given me.
“It feels surreal. I think I just feel grateful for the Olympics and for everything that it’s done for me.”
Kenworthy says that year’s Winter Olympics in Beijing will be his last Games and he intends on making the most of his farewell ride.
“I definitely feel driven and I do want to do really well and I have a run that I’ve been working on that I think will do well if I land it,” he added.
“So that’s pretty much just my goal, to land that run and leave it on the line, do everything I can and have no regrets. Walk away with my head held high.”
The Olympics have played a huge part in his story, and, in his last visit as a contender, he wants to experience it to the fullest.
“I’m excited to watch some other events and cheer on friends and teammates. And yeah, just enjoy the moment,” he said.
Responsibility over risk
Since coming out as gay, Kenworthy has been highly vocal about social injustice and the misrepresentation of minorities, not solely within the LGBTQ+ community, but also about issues of race as well as issues of mental health.
He posted heartfelt and impactful messages on his social media in support of the Black Lives Matter movement following George Floyd’s death and also supported US teammate Simone Biles given the tough times she experienced at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
“I think that as an athlete, you’re given a platform and you have the ability to reach a lot of people,” he explains.
“Whenever that’s the case, whether you’re an athlete or any type of public figure, it’s more important than ever to speak up for what you believe in, stand up for people who are marginalized or disenfranchised and try and do the best that you can because you do have a big platform and that’s a luxury.”
China’s human rights record has brought plenty of criticism before, and Kenworthy has not shied away from addressing this.
Other high-profile sporting figures have criticized China’s treatment of the Uyghur community, around the Games.
The US state department has said that it believes China is committing genocide on its Uyghur population. It says about two million people are being held in a network of internment camps, and are subjected to torture, sterilization and food deprivation.
China denies any human rights abuses. It has insisted that its re-education camps are necessary for preventing religious extremism and terrorism in the area.
“I have already spoken out against the fact that Beijing is even hosting,” said Kenworthy. “I think that China is going to put on an incredible Games, the village looks incredible, of course, the pipe and everything look insane, they’ve done a wonderful job.
“But I do think it’s important to use our voices, and for me, I think it’s important to note what I have said, which is just that I think that countries should have to meet certain ethics standards in order to be able to participate in the games or host the games.”
From the slopes to the screen
Kenworthy isn’t entirely sure what his life will be like beyond competitive skiing but he’s in no rush to find out, though he is planning a warm weather break.
In recent years, he has made a number of TV appearances, starring as ‘Chet Clancy’ in cult-favorite series “American Horror Story,” as well as being a guest judge on the iconic RuPaul’s “Drag Race All Stars.”
“I know what I’m interested in and I want to try and pursue acting. I’ve been doing a little bit,” he said.
“I’ve kind of put a hold on everything, I haven’t been taking any classes or auditioning or anything because all my focus has been on the Olympics.
“But following Beijing, I definitely want to continue to work at it and try and get better. Keep auditioning, hopefully work, book something and then I don’t know.”
Kenworthy will compete for a podium place in the men’s freeski halfpipe final run on February 19.