If you know Gus Kenworthy at all, you probably know him as The Puppy Dude—the tatted-up freeskiing badass who melted the internet’s two-sizes-too-small heart in 2014 by adopting a pair of stray puppies he found on the streets of Sochi. For a short while, those dogs—Mishka and Jake—turned Kenworthy into an inadvertent poster boy for animal adoption, but in 2015, a year removed from an Olympic silver medal and that aww-worthy viral moment, Kenworthy did something even more important:
He came out.
Rogers. Collins. Sam. Kenworthy. Due to the visibility of their respective sports, you probably recognize the first three names, but Kenworthy’s announcement on the cover of ESPN the Magazine, while perhaps less visible to the general sports fan, was no less impactful. Kenworthy wasn’t a role player, a fading veteran, or an unpaid college star. He was an athlete at the top of his sport, one where life and limb are put on the line—upside down, 60 feet in the sky—every time a competitor drops in...and where the other F-bomb is still used as a colloquial noun and sexuality is approached with the tactfulness and understanding of a stoned 16-year-old boy.
Kenworthy, with the help of other "alternative" athletes like Brian Anderson (hard-nosed skateboarding legend, out as of 2016), helped to kickstart the conversation around homosexuality in the action sports community. Now, on the cusp of the first Winter Olympics since his announcement, he’s poised to make that dialog a global one. On Sunday, Kenworthy officially qualified for the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, becoming one of only two openly gay U.S. athletes to EVER qualify for the Winter Olympics, following figure skater Adam Rippon earlier this month.
But take the nature of his sport—the stakes, the scale, the fanbase of walking, talking comment-section haters who are just there to see some triple corks, brah—in concert with Kenworthy’s potential to win the whole damn thing, and you have the making of a watershed moment in American sports. Will it happen? Will an openly gay man win gold for the U.S.? Who knows. All bets are off when you drag your skis halfway around the world just to throw your carcass off 100-foot ice mountains when NBC tells you to. But even if it doesn’t—even if you can't tell boots from bindings and the thought of getting towed up the j-bar gives you an acute case of childhood PTSD— the time has come to remember Kenworthy for more than just puppies.