Sports

Olympian Gus Kenworthy Talks Representation In Sports And Hanging Out In Korean Raccoon Cafés

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Gus Kenworthy‘s last Olympic experience in 2014 was highlighted by winning a silver medal in Men’s Slopestyle and adopting a stray dog off the streets of Sochi. This time around, the highlight was publicly battling vice president Mike Pence and advocating for representation as a gay Olympian.

Kenworthy made the final of the same event in Pyeongchang and finished in 12th this year, but he had a much more public presence at this Olympic Games and has been busy in the weeks since. Kenworthy sat down with Uproxx to talk about importance of representation in sports and how he feels athletes have an obligation to others to come out and share their stories with the world.

He also talked about traveling and, of course, the importance of renting lockers in raccoon cafés so the furry animals don’t steal things out of your pockets.

UPROXX: Let’s just talk about the last month or so. You’ve certainly been very busy. Have you had a little bit of time to catch up and regain normalcy here?

Gus Kenworthy: Honestly not really quite yet. I just got back from Korea. I flew home to Denver for less than 12 hours and dropped my bags. Then flew to New York, and I’m here until Saturday. But I’m doing a bunch of press and running around doing interviews and some sponsor appearances and stuff like that. Then I go to L.A. on Saturday and it continues. I think it’ll be a little bit hectic probably for the next few weeks and then it’ll start to die down. I’m looking forward to that for sure.

Travel’s hard on anyone, especially when they’re traveling very long distances. But as a professional athlete, how do you stay normal and stay focused and try to take care of yourself when you’re going around the world?

I mean, there’s tons of little travel hacks that I use. Some easy things are as simple as I’m traveling in compression pants because it just keeps the lactic acid from building up in your legs and allows good circulation. It stops your body from swelling up on flights. So I’ll wear compression pants underneath sweatpants or whatever I’m wearing on the flight. That kind of helps.

I’ll bring a candle with me to make hotel rooms or apartments, wherever I’m staying, feel a little bit more like home and smell good and be a little less sterile. Also I just try to enjoy it. I’m always on the road and it’s traveling and competing. It’s fun but sometimes it definitely feels like work. But then if I ever get an opportunity to do something, experience something, that’s what I love to do. So I try and get off to the cities and use my Marriott Moments to try and find something to do. Something cool and unique to wherever I am. That just makes all the travel worthwhile because it feels like mini vacations in between work.

Did you get a chance to explore Korea a little bit and see the sights and sounds, or was there just so much going on that you were at the Athlete Village and events and then going back to the room?

I was just in the athlete village and there wasn’t a ton to do there but I think I still got to experience a fair amount. My family was staying in Seoul and I was really excited to have them there because I didn’t have anybody in Sochi. I was stoked that they were there. They stayed in Seoul and took the train when they came to see my event.

Otherwise they were down there and I went down and stayed with them for a couple nights and got to see Seoul a little bit. Went to karaoke, we went to a raccoon café which is really crazy. There was just a lot that I got to see and do. I would have loved to have explored more, but it was definitely a pretty hectic time.

I’m not familiar with raccoon cafés. Are they exactly what they sound like?

It’s a café with raccoons in it. You don’t eat them obviously. They’re pets. You go in and I actually think it is an experience that’s on Marriott Moments. You go in and you can get a locker. You have to get a locker. You check in anything that’s in your pockets because the raccoons will steal anything out of your pockets. You can only go in with a cell phone that has to be in your hand and you’re in a confined room. It’s pretty big with windows.

And there’s just a bunch of raccoons inside then?

There’s seven raccoons and randomly there’s four dogs. There’s a French Bulldog and a Corgi, and some kind of hound. And then there’s just a bunch of raccoons and they’re totally domesticated. You can pick them up. They don’t love it, but you can pick them up, pet them, feed them. They’ll crawl all over you. It’s really cool. I’m obsessed with raccoons. I think they’re one of the cutest animals. I was pretty excited to do it.

It’s a little bit different than a cat café, which is I guess what’s closest to it stateside, right?

Actually it’s pretty similar. It’s almost like a cat café but with raccoons. But you can’t have anything in your pockets.

You mentioned Marriott and the rewards program they have, when did you start working with them? Were they an Olympic sponsor for you?

I actually just started working with them. But when the opportunity came about I was pretty excited about it because it’s something that parallels very easily because I do love traveling. I travel all the time. I want to experience as much as I can when I travel, and would love to tell other people about it and recommend things. And Marriott Moments basically has the biggest collection of experiences of anyone on the internet.

There’s hundreds of thousands of experiences in thousands of cities around the world. Some of the experiences are things that I’ve already done and had. Some of them are completely new to me. But it’s just something that I look forward to when I go on more trips, is checking out new experiences and finding something to do because I’m not the best at planning trips and itineraries. Then for things that I have done in the past and want to recommend to people, it just makes it easy and seamless for new people to go onto their website, marriotmoments.com, and find an experience. And you don’t have to have a membership.

It’s something they actually were doing before with Marriott Rewards, but the better thing about Marriott Moments is that anyone can do it. You don’t have to have a loyalty program. You can just go on, look up an experience, book it. It’s very, very easy and convenient.

One of the things I found about travel for me that gives me pause is that there’s a lot of uncertainty, especially when you’re traveling international. I just went on a trip to Spain and there’s customs and a language barrier and all these different things. Do you have any advice for people that are traveling to help them relax?

Honestly I think that the more you travel, the more comfortable and at ease you get. But I think it’s important to remember that you’re going to get there. Sometimes it can be stressful with delays and customs and immigration and different things that come up during travel. But I think you just have to breathe easy and remember that everybody else is going through the same thing. It’s just one of the disadvantages of travel.

But you’re also flying in a metal aircraft to the other side of the world! It’s almost unfathomable in some ways. You have to sometimes take the disruption with a grain of salt because it’s not always going to be perfect. But you will always get there, and you’re going to get there in one piece, and it’s all good.

So other than Colorado, where is your favorite place to ski?

I really like skiing in France. They have a few events in France in the French Alps. They’re just always a good time. There’s really good snow. It’s very different. None of the terrain is marked. If there’s a cliff or an obstacle or a rock, there won’t be any bamboo poles letting you know, warning you of it. It’s just kind of like ‘ski at your own risk.’ Which is kind of crazy but also makes it fun. There’s just amazing all terrain skiing. It’s all really just open and you can pick and choose exactly what you want to do. You just have to be careful.

Then we train in our off season here in New Zealand because it’s the opposite season and there’s a World Cup down there. I won’t say that the skiing is necessarily the best down there. At least at the resorts that we go to. It’s just average but they build a pretty good terrain park for us to train on, but the landscapes are truly incredibly breathtaking. It’s one of my favorite places to go. The people are super sweet and there’s so much to see and do off the mountains. I love New Zealand.

I read about the skiing in Pyeongchang and they said there were a lot of fences up so you couldn’t go off course easily and do things off of the normal slopes. Is it interesting to see how different the sport is handled in other places around the world?

Absolutely. I definitely don’t think there’s necessarily a ton of ski culture in Korea. They built an incredible slope style course for us. Everyone says the half-pipe was one of the best half-pipes they’ve ever ridden. They got the venues done and I think everything worked out really well. They did a beautiful job, but I definitely don’t think it’s the type of thing where they have an abundance of ski resorts, they’re full of people, and there’s a lot of industry around it. They did an incredible job with the Olympics but otherwise skiing and snowboarding isn’t necessarily a huge thing there.

One of the most important things that you seem to stress with your career and the time you have in the spotlight is that you want to represent for gay athletes. You’ve had some public battles with vice president Mike Pence in recent weeks. Just how important is representation in a time like this?

I think representation is so important. I just actually posted a tweet a few days ago just highlighting some really horrible comments that I’d gotten on my YouTube page that were just really homophobic and really offensive and really, really basically horrific. Like, death threats that I had gotten. I just wanted to show that it’s still out there. And I think it’s more important than ever to stand up and be proud and be visible and loud.

I think sometimes when there’s a lot of negativity, the natural inclination is to kind of hide and shy away from it and tone it down. My philosophy is that that’s the exact opposite of what we should be doing. Now more than ever that we should be really, really visible and really out there, and just have as much representation as possible because I think it definitely does change lives and saves lives.

I think in pro sports especially it can be difficult for people to come out and feel like they’re welcome. What would you say to somebody who’s maybe on the fence about that or still thinking about doing that?

I think in sports is so important that people do come out because I think that that’s going to be lighting the way for a future generation. I think that it’s a selfish thing to stay in the closet. Also I think it shows that you’re ashamed. I think it’s so important to not be ashamed of yourself and who you are. I think it’s important to embrace it. I know that in sports it’s scary because sometimes in team sports there’s a different dynamic. In individual sports like mine it’s based around sponsoring, a common image. You don’t want to do anything that you think might tarnish that. But I also think that it’s so important to be proud of yourself because I think that when you’re proud and when you’re authentic it’s so much easier for people to relate to you.

For me it ended up being a great thing career-wise because I had suddenly this whole new audience that was able to connect with me. It was a much larger audience than I had before. And sponsors were excited that I was speaking my truth. They wanted to support my story and I think it actually was a really beneficial thing for me not only from a personal standpoint but every different aspect of my life and career. And I would encourage anyone else to do the same.

I think it’s definitely convenient to stay in the closet and just coast through a sports career and not really turn any heads. And j do whatever the sport is that you’re doing and try and do it well and when it’s done you can come out but I think that for me it shouldn’t be about convenience. It should be about trying to help other people. You want to be the person that the child version of yourself needed.

Politically it seems like the climate for LGBTQ people and rights has gotten worse, especially in the last year. But has it gotten better in other areas? Do you think sponsors and other people in sports have become more open to gay athletes?

Oh my gosh, absolutely. I think it’s definitely trying times and there’s definitely a lot of homophobia out there, but at the same time there’s so much more love and support for the LGBT community than I’ve ever seen before in the past. Head and Shoulders, for me, was one of my Olympic sponsors and they were so excited about my story they did a commercial that played on national television. It played during the Super Bowl. It played during all of these big monumental moments when it had a ton of viewership. In the commercial I’m flying a pride flag and it was the first time it had ever been done in history.

I think that’s so cool. I think that that shows a change. It’s not only cool for me to feel proud and get to share that moment with the community and on TV, but I think it’s so amazing that a huge brand like Procter & Gamble did something like that and took a stand, and then did something that — it’s dumb to say risque — but it is kind of risque and forward thinking. I think it’s amazing. I hope it’s a sign of the times and that things are changing.

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