Telluride skier Gus Kenworthy first got on skis as a toddler, shortly after his family moved to town in the early ‘90s, and it wasn’t long before he was airborne.
“Catching air, jumping, spinning, that’s what he loved,” recalls his father Peter Kenworthy.
“He was always leaping off something,” said his mom, Pip Kenworthy.
It wasn’t some passing fancy, either. Kenworthy spent much of his childhood and teenage years on the Telluride Ski Resort, where he practically lived in the terrain park, hitting jumps and rails with friends until the lifts closed. When he couldn’t ski the resort, he was building jumps or practicing tricks on the trampoline. He started competing with the Telluride Ski and Snowboard Club at an early age, and went pro at 16.
Now, the kid whose tricks would wow the skiers riding Lift 4 over the terrain park is heading to the world’s preeminent sporting event. Kenworthy on Saturday secured a spot on the first ever U.S. Olympics team for slopestyle. He also has a chance at the halfpipe team — the fourth and final spot on that squad is expected to be announced on Tuesday.
The 22-year-old skier flies out for the Sochi Games on Jan. 29 — right after competing in the Winter X Games this weekend in Aspen.
Kenworthy, who has been working through a high-pressure series of Olympics qualifying events in recent months, said he is honored to compete in the Olympics.
“It feels incredible,” he said. “It’s a huge relief. Everything leading up to this has been pretty overwhelming.”
The Sochi Games represent the first time the slopestyle and halfpipe disciplines will be featured in the Olympics, and Kenworthy has been working to secure a spot on the teams since the news was announced.
Getting on the team entailed a brutal competition schedule: the top skiers in the U.S. had only five Grand Prix qualifying events this winter to lock down their spots. So when Kenworthy arrived in Park City late last week, where two back-to-back qualifiers took place, he had to podium twice in slopestyle and once in halfpipe.
“He went into Park City with just a tremendous amount of pressure,” Peter Kenworthy said.
Kenworthy said he knew exactly what he had to do in slopestyle, and that actually took a bit of the pressure off.
“I made a run in my head that I knew would definitely podium if I landed cleanly,” he said. “I kind of just went for it.”
He focused on the run, he said, rather than results, the points or the Olympics. And it paid off.
“He just nailed it,” his dad said. “Both runs, really, he just threw down virtually flawless runs.”
Pip Kenworthy said the experience was nerve-wracking.
“It was pretty intense, emotionally,” she said. “But I have to say, he does perform well under pressure.”
Those runs earned Kenworthy a second and third place spot in slopestyle, respectively, locking in his position on the Olympic team. He joins fellow freeskiers and friends Bobby Brown and Nick Goepper.
He also finished third place in halfpipe in Park City. That means he is also in the running for the final, or discretionary, spot on that team, though Kenworthy believes it may go to Torin Yater-Wallace, a successful halfpipe skier who was injured in a crash in December.
Even though there was no such thing as Olympic freeskiing when Kenworthy began competing, he said when he thinks about it, he’s been working toward this goal for the last decade.
“I guess I’ve been working toward this since I was 11 or 12,” he said. “I always knew I wanted to be a professional skier … It’s been a long and winding road to it.”
Kenworthy’s love of skiing sent him on a competitive path early. He got his first sponsor at the age of 16, went pro and finished school at Telluride High School through an online program while he traveled, trained and competed.
He has been pursuing a professional skiing career since, competing in the X Games, appearing in ski films and gaining attention for ground-breaking tricks. Last season, he won a Euro X Games medal, won slopestyle at the Association of Freeskiing Professionals World Championships and defended his AFP title for the third consecutive year.
But the Olympics have been a major goal recently. Pip Kenworthy said watching her son gain a spot was amazing.
“It’s like a dream come true,” she said. “It’s his dream come true, for sure.”
Peter Kenworthy said the professional freeskiing world is intensely competitive, and that’s only been stepped up leading up to Sochi. Gus, he said, has weathered a lot — falls, injuries, disappointing results — to get where he is.
“Gus was really pushed to the limit,” he said. “I just have to take my hat off to him because he’s just had the tenacity and the optimism and confidence, and he’s put up with a lot of disappointment. He’s just had to really dig deep, and I’m really proud of him.”
Because of the prohibitive travel costs, safety issues and the sheer craziness of the events, Kenworthy’s parents are likely not going to Russia.
But Peter said he is going to look into trying to find a venue where Telluride residents can watch the games on a big screen.
“It’s a community event. It’s a hometown kid,” he said.