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Gus Kenworthy, chasing first gold, recalls trembling when he came out

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PARK CITY, Utah — Asked if he has a motto, Gus Kenworthy wrote, “The longer you wait, the harder it gets.”

It’s the morning of Oct. 22, 2015. Kenworthy, the 2014 Olympic ski slopestyle silver medalist, is at the house of two friends after a sleepless night.

He’s trembling.

“I went to post what I had written, post the link to the article and post the photo saying that I was gay,” he recalled Monday. “I was so scared.”

Kenworthy, a London-born, Colorado-raised 25-year-old, knew as far back as age 5 that he was gay.

When he decided to come out a year and a half after the Sochi Olympics, Kenworthy did an interview and a photo shoot. It would be another month before publication.

The longer you wait, the harder it gets.

“There’s no going back now,” Kenworthy thought during those four weeks. “I couldn’t be, like, actually, you know what, I’m not quite ready yet. I’m scared.”

Before the world knew, Kenworthy told his family, best friends and his agent. He built up the worst-case scenario. If everybody else left him — sponsors, fans, fellow skiers — he knew he could count on that close support group.

So on the morning of Oct. 22, 2015, Kenworthy was at the home of two close friends as his news aired on ESPN and ran online. His brother and sister-in-law came over for breakfast, too.

He posted. Then, he cried.

“Instant relief,” he said. “All this weight off my shoulders.”

Such overwhelming support that Kenworthy could not unlock his phone because of the stream of notifications.

“I still get messages every day, like I wanted to say how much your article meant to me. It helped me come out,” Kenworthy said. “It’s the one thing I’m most proud of.”

Now, Kenworthy is one of the marquee names going into the PyeongChang Winter Games.

He picked up zero Olympic sponsors leading up to Sochi. In the last eight days alone, he announced deals with Visa and Ralph Lauren.

Kenworthy, even though he is arguably the world’s best freeskier, acknowledges coming out helped with that.

“I am more marketable now as an out athlete,” he said. “Every brand is looking for diversity. It’s more important for brands to have diversity than it ever has been in the past.

“Since coming out, I’m definitely, like, the gay skier now. I knew I was stepping into that role when I did it. It’s like, in some ways I don’t really care if that’s the label that sticks because I very much am the gay skier.”

Kenworthy is comfortable in the spotlight.

He has been quoted calling Anderson Cooper “a father figure” after appearing on his New Year’s Eve special. His dream is to host “Saturday Night Live.” He said he made out with Miley Cyrus one month after Sochi.

Last Saturday night, the kid who grew up in a small Colorado ski town was a co-host at the Global Citizen Festival. The concert draws more than 50,000 people annually to New York City’s Central Park.

Other presenters included Hugh JackmanDemi Lovato and Lupita Nyong’o.

“Walking up the side of the stage, looking up and seeing the New York skyline behind the park,” remembered Kenworthy, who now splits time between Brooklyn and Colorado. “I’m from a town of 2,000 people. My high school class had 48 kids in it. So, I had never seen people like that. … That’s the impact, in part, the Olympics has, because I never would have been there without it.”

Kenworthy has been a world-class freeskier for six years. He’s the only man with podium credentials in halfpipe and slopestyle.

As far as gold goes, the wait has been long. Kenworthy earned silver medals at the Olympics, world championships and X Games Aspen, but never a title.

“I have the LGBT audience watching me, and I want to do right by them,” Kenworthy said. “There’s all these people I want to do right by, including myself. I think it puts a little pressure on, but it’s good pressure. … It’s a motivator.”

When Kenworthy came out in 2015, he was mounting a comeback from a reported torn MCL and meniscus and surgery to repair a broken femur. And from contemplating retirement after missing the halfpipe and slopestyle podiums at the 2015 X Games. (Kenworthy also thought about giving up skiing after his best friend died in a ski accident when he was 14 years old.)

After coming out, Kenworthy won his first contest, reportedly on his ninth day on snow post-surgery. A month later, Kenworthy captured his first X Games Aspen medals, silvers in halfpipe and slopestyle.

That was big.

X Games meant so much to Kenworthy that, before he came out, he threw up on the chair lift at the event, Olympic teammate Bobby Brown told ESPN.com.

“I had a long time where I would qualify first or second at X Games, always, and then fall every run in the finals,” Kenworthy said. “The pressure got to me. I couldn’t handle it. I don’t know if it’s because I was in the closet that I couldn’t compete, but I think it was something that was ever-present in my mind. It was always distracting.”

This past January, Kenworthy tumbled to 10th in both halfpipe and slopestyle at X Games.

He rebounded for slopestyle silver at worlds, but the Olympic favorites now appear to be Aaron Blunck in halfpipe and McRae Williams in slopestyle.

“It wasn’t a bad season by any means, but I think I struggled more than past seasons,” Kenworthy told NBC Olympic Research in May. “It was a little bit of a tough pill to swallow, but I think I ended on a strong note, feel pretty good about my skiing at the moment.”

Kenworthy hoped to make the Sochi Olympic team in halfpipe and slopestyle but was passed over in the former for the last of four U.S. spots.

He’s trying again this winter. If he could choose one over the other, it would be halfpipe.

“If and when I make the team I will be very much freed up to enjoy it,” Kenworthy said, “more so than I was in the past.”

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MORE: 15-year-old Olympic skiing favorite to miss PyeongChang

Daniel Romanchuk’s ascent to marathon stardom accelerated at University of Illinois

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The rise of Daniel Romanchuk has been one of the major stories of this Paralympic cycle. The wheelchair racer was eliminated in the first round of all five of his races in Rio.

But now, he’s the world’s best marathoner with a 6-foot-10 wingspan, a world-record holder on the track and already qualified for the Tokyo Games.

Romanchuk, born with spina bifida, was profiled by NBC Sports Chicago as part of a series of NBC Sports Regional Networks pieces published this week — marking 150 days until the Tokyo Olympics and six months until the Tokyo Paralympics.

NBC RSN Olympic and Paralympic Profiles
NBC Sports Bay Area

Abbey Weitzeil (Swimming) — LINK

NBC Sports Boston
Margaret Bertasi (Rowing) — LINK
Abbey D’Agostino Cooper (Track and Field) — LINK

NBC Sports Chicago
Ryan Murphy (Swimming) — LINK

NBC Sports Northwest
Galen Rupp (Marathon) — LINK
Mariel Zagunis (Fencing) — LINK

NBC Sports Philadelphia
Vashti Cunningham (Track and Field) — LINK
Julie Ertz (Soccer) — LINK

NBC Sports Washington
Katie Ledecky (Swimming) — LINK
Kyle Snyder (Wrestling) — LINK

Romanchuk, 21, swept the Boston, London, Chicago and New York City Marathon titles in 2019. He attributes that success to his native Baltimore and his training residence of the University of Illinois.

At age 2, he was enrolled in Baltimore’s Bennett Blazers, an adaptive sports program for children with physical disabilities. Tatyana McFadden, a 17-time Paralympic medalist who dominated women’s wheelchair marathons, planted her athletic roots there.

“Their motto is to teach kids they can before they’re told they can’t,” Romanchuk said.

Things really blossomed for Romanchuk after he moved from Baltimore to the University of Illinois. Illinois was designated a U.S. Paralympic training site in 2014 and has produced McFadden, Jean Driscoll and other U.S. Paralympic stars.

“Without this program, I certainly would not be where I am,” Romanchuk said. “It’s a very unique combination of coaching and teammates.”

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MORE: Ten Paralympic hopefuls to watch for 2020 Tokyo Games

Chloé Dygert wanted to be Steve Prefontaine. Then Larry Bird. Now, her coach.

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Chloé Dygert is the U.S.’ top cyclist, an Olympic medalist and world champion in line to race on the track and the road at the Tokyo Games.

To get to this point — leading the American contingent at the world track cycling championships this week — Dygert was kicked off a soccer team, bribed by her father and, when she thought her career was over, enrolled in 5 a.m. classes to get back on the bike.

“I had no interest in being a cyclist. I did not want to be a cyclist,” she said. “The funny thing is, my dad kept getting me bikes.”

It began in Brownsburg, Ind., a 25,000-person town 15 miles northwest of Indianapolis. Dygert had an older brother, younger brother and a BMX dirt bike track on a 4.5-acre property.

She played soccer, but was moved from the girls’ team to the boys. Dygert developed physically earlier than the other girls. And, “I was a little too mean and aggressive,” she said.

She played basketball but broke too many bones — her own and those of other girls. “Not on purpose,” she said, “but I was just so much bigger and naturally so much stronger.”

Dygert ran cross-country, too, but none of those sports worked out.

“I was going to be Steve Prefontaine,” she said of the fabled 1972 Olympian. “I had some injuries, and I started playing basketball. I was going to be Larry Bird. I had some more injuries, and cycling was just kind of my go-to.”

Dygert, at first reluctant, picked up cycling at the urging of her father, David, a mountain biker. She received bikes for Christmas and her New Year’s birthday, but it wasn’t until later, when she was 15, that her father’s words changed her life.

That summer, when Dygert needed a shoulder surgery from a basketball injury, she went for a ride at a local park with her father. David marveled.

“He said, ‘Chloe, I don’t think a girl your age should be able to put out the power that you’re putting out,'” Dygert remembered. “That kind of stuck with me and got me into wanting to ride a little bit more and seeing where I could go with it.”

David lured her: a pair of Oakleys if Dygert won at her first major competition. She entered junior nationals and grabbed a victory.

“That’s kind of what gave me the motivation to keep going,” she said. “It took me a while to actually love the sport. It definitely was not an interest that I had. But I thrive on winning. I love to win.”

Dygert pursued cycling, but she didn’t stop basketball. Everything changed when she tore an ACL on the court at age 17, a nine-month injury. She never returned to competitive basketball, but she also lost motivation to get back on the bike. Again, David urged her. One last time.

She joined the cycling team at Marian University, a private Catholic school in Indianapolis. David signed her up for 5 a.m. classes.

“I’m still not happy about it,” she said. “I got really disciplined.”

And reinvigorated. The freshman Dygert noticed in a power booster class that her wattage was impressive.

“If it wasn’t for that and the structure and the discipline that I had gotten from that and my dad, I would not be here,” she said. “There’s not a day that goes by, I’m just so thankful for that and for him.”

Dygert dropped out after that first fall semester to focus on a cycling career. That winter, she won a world title with the U.S. team pursuit and was named to become the youngest female U.S. Olympic track cyclist in history.

“I see myself being a Kristin Armstrong, following in her footsteps, being a good all-around rider and a very good time trialist,” Dygert said before earning team pursuit silver at the Rio Olympics, according to The Associated Press.

Armstrong earned her third Olympic road time trial title in Rio, a day before turning 43. She retired and transitioned from Dygert’s mentor to her coach. Dygert recently moved to Armstrong’s native Idaho.

On the eve of September’s world road cycling championships time trial, Armstrong told Dygert to make sure she hurt more than any other rider on the 18-mile course. Dygert obeyed. She went out and won by 92 seconds, the largest margin in history, to become the youngest world champion ever in the event. She collapsed onto the pavement getting off her bike.

“I didn’t race with a power meter,” Dygert said that day, “and I think that really helped not restricting myself, just kind of going as fast as I could the entire time and not really have anything to gauge it off of.”

It qualified Dygert for the Tokyo Olympics on the road. The track team hasn’t been named, but Dygert will surely anchor a new team pursuit quartet. The U.S. has never won an Olympic women’s track title, but the pursuit has been its trademark event — world titles in 2016, 2017 and 2018. Olympic silver medals in 2012 and 2016.

The only woman on both of those Olympic teams retired (Sarah Hammer).

The cycling community was floored when Kelly Catlin, on all three world title teams with Dygert, committed suicide last March at age 23.

“It’s definitely hard not having her there, but we will carry her legacy on,” Dygert said. “She will be with us every step of the way when we win gold in Tokyo.”

The U.S. women’s team pursuit finished seventh at last year’s worlds without Catlin and without Dygert, who sat out nearly a year after a May 2018 concussion from a road crash. Dygert wondered if she might not be able to come back from the head injury. Expectations were tempered when she and a new team entered a November World Cup in Belarus.

A coach predicted nothing faster than 4 minutes, 17 seconds. They clocked 4:13 and won in what Dygert believed was the U.S.’ second-fastest time since the Rio Games.

“We’ve never raced together before,” Dygert said. “We didn’t really know what we would be able to do.”

Dygert is bidding to race in three events in Tokyo — road race (July 26), road time trial (July 29) and team pursuit (Aug. 3-4). People compare combining the road and the track to training for both the sprints and the marathon. The plurality of the focus will be on the time trial and to follow the path set by Armstrong to the top of an Olympic podium. Hopefully, road and track podiums.

“We’re going to be smart about which event that we choose to be full gas for so my fitness is still there for all the other events,” Dygert said. “Being fit for the time trial will also correlate for the track.”

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