Four years ago, Gus Kenworthy was one of three American men on the podium after their slopestyle skiing victory in the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
Along with Joss Christensen, who took gold, and Nick Goepper, who earned bronze, the silver-medaling Kenworthy helped to achieve a rare country sweep — and it was a performance that would help push him to break another barrier.
The following year, Kenworthy announced he was gay on the cover of ESPN the Magazine, the first American action sports competitor to do so.
“I think Sochi, in a way, is the reason I came out,” Kenworthy, 26, told PEOPLE in the fall before heading to Pyeongchang, South Korea, for the Winter Games. “Having an Olympic medal validates that you can be a successful freeskier … It’s like a credential that sticks with you the rest of your life.”
In late January, Kenworthy qualified for Team USA, making him one of two openly gay men to compete for America at the Winter Olympics alongside figure skater Adam Rippon, who made the cut earlier that month. (The two have struck up a friendship, which they partially document on social media, to the joy of their fans.)
— Gus Kenworthy (@guskenworthy) February 9, 2018
Of going public about his sexuality, Kenworthy said, “It was a huge deal for me, like it’s just a big chapter in my life and it was something that I never thought I was going to be able to do during my career. I thought it would have to wait until after I was done competing, and to take that step just meant a lot for me and my mental well-being. But also I think it had an impact that was so much bigger than me and bigger than I expected to have, and I had so many people tell me how much it’s helped them.”
Indeed, Kenworthy’s October 2015 coming-out was met with immediate and widespread support, within and beyond the world of skiing.
Strangers, too, have turned to him — opening up about how much his courage inspired them.
“That just makes me feel like I’ve done something right and it makes me happy that I did it in such a public way,” he said. “Because in some regards it’s your own business, it’s not really anybody else’s, but I think that the reason that I wanted to do it in a big way and make a big splash was because it’s so unexpected in our sport and in action sports, and I think that the only way to really battle homophobia and battle stereotypes is just by having visibility and being public and open and honest and authentic.”
“Hopefully,” he said, “it gets to a point where down the line people don’t have to come out.”
On the snow, Kenworthy has continued to succeed, earning two silver medals at the 2016 Winter X Games and then, in 2017, winning silver in men’s slopestyle at the Freestyle Ski World Championships.
“I don’t think I could have come out as a gay athlete 30 years ago and expected to be successful in my sport,” he told TIME in December. “My story’s indicative of change.”
In Russia in 2014, fear of his sexuality becoming public became tangled up in other parts of his life, including his headline-making endeavor to rescue several puppies and their mother in Sochi (which was featured on the cover of PEOPLE).
For example, while media coverage noted Kenworthy’s “friend” was helping him with the dogs, in reality the two were dating.
“I would try and say in interviews, ‘Oh, my friend is doing this!’ and be like, ‘Okay sure, sure, sure,’ ” Kenworthy told PEOPLE. “And just didn’t care because I was too scared to be like, ‘No, it’s actually my boyfriend and he’s actually staying behind and it’s like a thing we’re doing together, it’s not me.’ ”
The secrecy “created a lot of tension between us,” Kenworthy said. While the two have since split, they are still in touch and his ex cares for two of the dogs, in Canada, while his mom has the third.
“They have an awesome life and I get pictures of them all the time and still see him and see them when I can,” Kenworthy said. “And then the mother-dog lives with my mom in Colorado, and they are just attached at the hip. She honestly likes that dog more than she likes my brothers and I.”
Returning to the Olympics for the second time, how does Kenworthy want the world to perceive him now?
“I don’t think that one thing defines me, but I know that by coming out the way that I did sort of almost pioneering it in action sports — to take that stand — that it’s always going to be a label that is stuck with me and I know that I’ll always be the ‘gay skier,’ and it actually doesn’t bother me,” he said. “It’s 100 percent true and that’s who I am and it’s part of me that I’m proud to be embracing.”
Kenworthy has recently made no secret of his distaste for Vice President Mike Pence, a self-described religious conservative with a track record of anti-LGBT politics (who also traded words with Rippon over his record).
After arriving in Pyeongchang to compete, but before he took the snow, Kenworthy broke his thumb in practice. He used the announcement to take a crack at Pence as well, writing on Twitter, “It won’t stop me from competing (obvi) but it does prevent me from shaking Pence’s hand so… Silver linings!”
While his first Games carried the usual set of nerves, “this time around, I already have the medal,” Kenworthy told PEOPLE. “I feel like there’s so much more expectation on me.”
Now, he has more sponsors and a much larger following, in part thanks to his athleticism but also because of what he represents.
It’s a weight, say those closest to him — “He’s moodier,” boyfriend Matthew Wilkas told TIME. “He grinds his teeth at night. … I have to nudge him.”
But Kenworthy told PEOPLE it’s a weight he’s proud to carry.
“I have the LGBT audience behind me and there’s all these people that I want to make proud, and I want to do well aside from just myself. And so I feel like I’ve got a little bit more on my shoulders,” Kenworthy explained. “But I also think that I do well under pressure, so I’m hoping that that is a good thing for me.”
The Olympics are airing live on NBC. To learn more, visit teamusa.org.