Four years ago American freeskier Gus Kenworthy earned a silver medal in the men’s slopestyle event at the 2014 Winter Games — though that achievement was tangled up with a secret he had long been keeping: He was gay.
On Sunday, and more than two years after coming out in ESPN the Magazine, Kenworthy returned to the snow to defend his Olympic medal in Pyeongchang, South Korea. This time he was one of two openly gay athletes competing for Team USA, along with figure skater Adam Rippon. (He was also skiing with a broken thumb and a bruised hip.)
While Kenworthy, 26, made a strong showing in the slopestyle qualifying earlier Sunday (which aired Saturday night stateside), he turned in three sub-par runs in the final later Sunday and landed in last place.
By the time he finished though Kenworthy had already earned the attention of news outlets and spectators at home after NBC aired a quick kiss between him and his boyfriend, Matt Wilkas, before his runs.
Outsports, which covers LGBT athletes and issues in sports, described the moment as a “first,” while several Twitter users reacted joyfully both to it and the fact that it was seen by the world.
— Outsports (@outsports) February 18, 2018
“A kiss from his boyfriend from the top of the slope and a wave of rainbow flags at the bottom!” Rusty Hatchell wrote. “Gus Kenworthy, you’re making so many LGBT Americans so very proud of you!!!”
“I just saw Guys Kenworthy kiss his boyfriend on TV at the Olympics and I’m so happy,” another user posted, adding a string of rainbow flag emoji.
And Emma Grant tweeted that “that beautiful casual kiss between @guskenworthy and his boyfriend on @NBCOlympics — I’m old enough to understand how significant that is.”
— Matty (@mattyigreene) February 18, 2018
I gotta say watching the @NBCOlympics and hearing “that’s @guskenworthy with his mother and his boyfriend” from the sportscaster just melts my heart. So glad so many young kids get to hear that while watching their heroes become champions.
— Liam Reed (@neatoni) February 18, 2018
Speaking with a group of reporters after he competed, Kenworthy said he was unaware of the attention the kiss had received — but pleased by it.
“I didn’t even now that that was a televised moment at all but I think that’s amazing,” he said. “That’s something that I wanted at the last Olympics was to share a kiss with my boyfriend at the bottom, and it was something that I was too scared to do for myself. And so to be able to do that, to give him a kiss, to have that affection broadcasted for the world is incredible.”
He continued, “I mean, I think that the only way to really change perceptions, break down homophobia, break down barriers is through representation and that’s definitely not something I had as a kid. I definitely didn’t see a gay athlete at the Olympics kissing their boyfriend and I think that if I had it would have made it a lot easier for me.”
Wilkas, too, was asked about the kiss while watching Kenworthy compete and he told TIME with a laugh that it “was like a peck.”
“We should have made out in front of people,” he said.
Then he echoed Kenworthy when he noted, “It’s unusual, right? It’s good that it’s televised because it normalizes it more. I would imagine it would be a huge moment for a young gay kid to see an awesome athlete so open and proud of himself and not caring what anyone thinks of his sexuality.”
Of his three runs, two of which saw him fall, Kenworthy told the press: “I would have loved to have landed a run for sure, of course, and my first run I was really proud of actually until the last jump , and I’m not even sure what happened — but definitely disappointing.”
Though he was grappling with recent injury and his high-profile, at the top of the course Kenworthy said he was “just reminding myself how amazing this experience is, and it would have been hard to get on the podium today.”
“I think maybe I could have done it if I had landed my run, I don’t know, but I was trying to remind myself that win or lose I still have a lot to be proud of,” he said, “and I have an amazing support system here, my family’s here, my boyfriend’s here and win or lose it’s not the thing that defines me. So I don’t know, I’m just proud to be here representing the U.S. and to have made it through to the final and stoked for the guys that made it on the podium.”
He was asked: Which was more meaningful — his ’14 medal in the closet or his last-place finish while out?
“I mean I think if you look at me right now, I’m bummed but I’m not sulking, I’m not crying,” he said. “I’m really proud to be here and I think that being out at this Games has kind of meant the world to me, like just really getting to be myself and be authentic.”
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“I think that landing a run in the final, getting on the podium, obviously would have been icing on the cake,” Kenworthy continued, “but even though it didn’t happen for me. I still had a wonderful Olympic experience.”
Finally, almost trailing off, he said: “Maybe there’s a next time.”
The 2018 Winter Olympics are airing live on NBC. To learn more, visit teamusa.org.