Olympic skier Gus Kenworthy on coming out and his new role as a symbol for LGBTQ rights

Gus Kenworthy

CBS News

Olympic free skier Gus Kenworthy left the 2014 Sochi Games with a silver medal and a pack of stray dogs he famously rescued. But he was bothered by what he didn't do at the last Olympics. He didn't speak out about Russia's anti-gay policies then, but now he's living as his authentic self and taking on a new role – one that transcends sports.

Sochi Olympics Medals Ceremony Freestyle Skiing Men

Gus Kenworthy of the United States smiles while holding his silver medal for men's slopestyle skiing at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

Morry Gash / AP

"I definitely carry a little bit of a burden with me, being a gay athlete going to the Olympics. I think that there's pressure on me…. It presents an amazing opportunity and I think that it kind of gives us a chance to shed people's misconceptions and just kind of like break down barriers," Kenworthy told CBS News' Don Dahler.

For Kenworthy, free skiing is like a dance. He masters the delicate balance of precision, technique and control effortlessly. The 26-year-old, British-born, Colorado-bred star learned to ski shortly after learning to walk. Today, the extreme athlete is embracing his role off the mountain, as an advocate for the LGBT community.

"When I was a kid, my life would've been easier if I had someone that was in my position, that was out and gay and proud and successful in their sport…. But not having that, I think I realize the need for that and the importance of it and so I want to be that person," Kenworthy said. "I wanna be able to be a beacon of light for young kids in sports."

His ability on the snow is indisputable. He has rubber bones, as he calls them. But as an elite athlete in the testosterone-filled world of extreme sports, coming out was frightening.

"Competitors, even friends that would say things that were so homophobic and I don't think that they realized necessarily the impact that it was having on me, because I was in the closet," he said. "And I think that that's what made me really scared to come out."

The turning point came after he won a silver medal in Sochi and a reporter asked him to name his celebrity crush. In a panic, he said pop star Miley Cyrus.
 
"And I was really feeling burdened being in the closet," he said. "I think before that, I was kind of like lying by omission, but then when you're actually lying…. It made me resent myself and made me realize that I didn't want to be ashamed of who I was…. I wanted to just be able to be me."
 
In 2015, after winning his fifth straight title as the world's best free skier, Kenworthy came out on the cover of ESPN's magazine. He said it was scarier than anything else he'd ever done. Now? He's proud.

espn-cover-photo-credit-peter-hapak-for-espn.jpg

Gus Kenworthy on the cover of ESPN magazine

Peter Hapak for ESPN

"Hearing people tell me that it's made it easier for them to accept themselves…To tell someone they were gay or whatever their different story is, like, that's what makes me feel like I've done something right. So, I think it's the most important thing I've ever done."

The ski industry embraced him and sponsors poured in.

"You don't want to be defined by one thing. But at the same point…. When you are the first in something, that's gonna kinda be the title that sticks. And after Sochi, I was like the dog guy," he joked. "Now I'm the gay guy, and it's fine by me. But I'm looking forward to the day when it's like 'the Olympic medalist' or whatever and then further into the conversation maybe it's revealed that I'm gay but it's not the defining characteristic."
 
Still, for Kenworthy, staying silent is no longer an option. After the Winter Games, the Olympic team is generally invited to the White House, an invitation he says he'd decline. 

"When we have people elected into office that believe in conversion therapy and are trying to strip trans rights in the military and do these things that are directly attacking the LGBT community, I have no patience," he said.  "I am so proud to be from the U.S. and to be from a country where you are able to voice your political opinions and stand up for what you believe in, and I think that when you have a platform, you have to use it, especially if you feel very strongly about something."

Kenworthy criticized the decision to have Vice President Mike Pence lead the U.S. delegation at the opening ceremony. He said it's unfortunate and sends mixed messages, since Pence does not support the LGBT community.