Rippon, Kenworthy not just representing United States

Elliott Almond
San Jose Mercury News

Gangneung, South Korea — They proudly wear the Team USA emblem as established Winter Olympians.

But every time freeskier Gus Kenworthy and figure skater Adam Rippon head into their respective competitive arenas, they carry more than the red, white and blue flags of their citizenry. The men shoulder the weight of the LBGTQ community that for years had tiptoed in the shadows of societies across the world.

Using the Olympic megaphone, though, has not increased the burden as each man tries to win medals for country, community and themselves.

“Getting to be authentic is so liberating,” said Kenworthy, who competes Sunday (Saturday night, Eastern) in the freeskiing slopestyle event.

Rippon, 28, got his first chance Monday morning here with a flawless long program that helped the United States win bronze in the team event.

How did he stay composed while every word he utters is transmitted worldwide and dissected depending on deeply held feelings about what it means to be gay?

“Sometimes it is really hard,” he said. “I came here to do a job. Being vocal has given my skating more importance. It’s not just for me.”

The first two openly gay United States athletes to compete in the Winter Olympics met in person for the first time at the Opening Ceremony on Friday night. They used the opportunity to mention Vice President Mike Pence, who also was in attendance. Pence is a longtime opponent of gay rights.

“The #OpeningCeremony is a wrap and the 2018 Winter Olympic Gaymes are officially underway! I feel incredibly honored to be here in Korea competing for the US and I’m so proud to be representing the LGBTQ community alongside this amazing guy! Eat your heart out, Pence,” Kenworthy wrote in an Instagram post.

The reference was decidedly political, underscoring how much the athletes have embraced their roles. After years of remaining mute, both men have given themselves to tell their stories over and over in what seemingly would be an exhaustive exercise when trying to perform on the grandest of stages.

“I spent 24 years in the closet wanting to talk so desperately about who I was and what I am but too afraid to,” said Kenworthy, who won a silver medal at the Sochi Games. “Having a couple years of doing too many interviews is fine by me.”

The athletes who both came out in 2015 say their frankness matters because, for so long, fellow Olympians — and athletes in other arenas, as well — have worried that being themselves would undermine their careers, spoil reputations.

“For anyone who says ‘Who cares if you’re gay, it’s 2018?’ well, a lot of people care because a lot of people had the opportunity to be out and there’s been a lot of fear surrounding it,” Kenworthy said. “This is the first time we’re seeing representation and because of that it is a big deal.”

Rippon recalled Monday that he always knew he had a voice while growing up in Scranton, Pennsylvania, where he often was bullied.

“It took me a long time to find it and use it,” said Rippon, who competes in the men’s short program Friday (Thursday night, Pacific). “My mom always taught me to stand up for people who might not have a voice.”

Rippon is one of the oldest Olympic skating rookies in decades. But he never doubted he could make it to the Pyeongchang Games after announcing his gender preferences.

“It’s given my skating a greater purpose,” said the American team’s biggest personality. “I’ve let go of those doubts. I’ve finally gotten out of my way.”

Kenworthy, from Telluride, Colo., faced similar questions throughout his life. He never saw anyone like him to model while growing up.

“I think that myself being out, Adam being out, all these athletes finally being out for the first time, I think it just shows a shift, a change, and hopefully in the future, it means that it won’t be a big thing,” he said. “It won’t be a headline, it won’t be the gay Olympian, the gay skier, the gay anything, it will just be a skier.”

Or skater.

“Everybody can relate to being different or not good enough, they’ll never make it because they’re from a small town,” Rippon said. “I want those young kids to know anything is possible.”

Two years ago, Kenworthy labored over whether to make a statement about his sexuality. Coming from the action-sports arena is different than figure skating where many former male champions, such as Brian Boitano, have announced they were gay well after their careers.

Kenworthy followed the lead of Caitlyn Jenner, the former Olympic decathlon champion Bruce Jenner who trained in San Jose. Three years ago, Jenner transitioned to a woman in an explosive celebrity news commentary.

“When Caitlyn was Bruce he understood the pressure of the Olympics and everything else that goes hand in hand with it,” Kenworthy said. “I think I just saw a lot of myself in the story and it touched me and came at a really important time of my life, so it was pretty impactful.”

Kenworthy’s platform grew this month after qualifying for his second Olympics. He is not about to miss the opportunity.

“The more normalized queer becomes, the easier it is for people to wrap their heads around it and the more we will see positive change,” he said.

Kenworthy feels as if he already has validated himself without the pressure to win another Olympic medal. He had his best season after announcing he was gay.

“I’m actually someone who’s always had to compartmentalize my life because I was in the closet and was in fear of outing myself and had so much going on in my mind and I couldn’t share it with anyone,” he said.

He reflects on how impressive it was to get a silver medal in Russia four years ago.

“As soon as I came out it was a whole new world,” Kenworthy said. “It is shocking I could compete in any other way.”

Medal or not, at this point it doesn’t matter as much to Kenworthy. Rippon has said he just wants to skate two well-received programs; without a quadruple jump, he has little chance of earning a medal in the hotly contested men’s singles competition.

But what both men have done in Korea is bigger than how they perform on the ice or slopes.

“The Olympics is all about inclusion, coming together for sport,” Kenworthy said. “That’s the footprint I want to leave.”