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Why pro skier Gus Kenworthy jumped to Great Britain’s Olympic squad from the U.S. team

The U.K.-born, Telluride-raised freeskiing pioneer hopes to compete in the halfpipe, slopestyle and big air competitions in the 2022 Winter Olympics

Gus Kenworthy, skiing for the U.S., catches air during the men's slopestyle qualifications on Feb. 18, 2018, at Phoenix Snow Park at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games. Kenworthy qualified for the finals. (Mark Reis, ZUMA Press/The Gazette via AP)
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Gus Kenworthy, the Telluride-raised freeskiing pioneer and two-time Olympian who has helped establish the U.S. as an international halfpipe and slopestyle skiing powerhouse, announced earlier this month that he will ski for Great Britain as he tracks toward the 2022 Winter Olympics in China. 

His mom is British and Kenworthy was born outside London, where he lived the first years of his life before moving to Telluride. The 28-year-old holds dual citizenship.

Kenworthy won silver in the inaugural Olympic ski slopestyle contest in Sochi in 2014. (That was also where he won international acclaim for adopting a stray dog and her puppies.) He weathered injury and the notoriously grueling qualification process to win a berth on the U.S. Ski Team’s slopestyle squad in South Korea in 2018. (He rescued more dogs in South Korea, after visiting a farm where canines were raised for meat.)

One of the most versatile skiers in the sport, he wants to ski in the halfpipe, slopestyle and inaugural big air contests in the 2022 Winter Games, a task that is virtually impossible for American athletes who are routed through arduous qualifying schedules to earn a chance to compete in even one Olympic discipline.  

Gus Kenworthy, seen here talking with fans before the slopestyle competition at the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, will compete for Great Britain, where he was born, in the 2022 Winter Games in China. (Jason Blevins, Colorado Sun)

Many of the world’s top freeskiers are Americans. The U.S. can take only four men for each slopestyle and halfpipe team in China’s 2022 Winter Olympics, with slopestyle skiers serving double-duty for the debut of skiing’s Olympic big air. Kenworthy said the depth of the American field means it’s unlikely — if not impossible — that he will qualify for all three disciplines on the U.S. Ski Team.

The U.S. qualifying is “very dog-eat-dog and insane,” Kenworthy said, and qualifying for Team GB will be less competitive. The country sent two men to ski slopestyle in South Korea, including 2018 world champion James Woods, and three to ski in the South Korean Olympic halfpipe. So there is room for Kenworthy to fit on the Great Britain team without battling against his friends.

In the two months before the 2018 Winter Games, U.S. skiers and snowboarders were pushed through a brief and brutal qualification process to land a coveted ticket to South Korea. With four competitions in six weeks, the consequences of a crash, or even a bobble, were serious. It was even harder in 2014 as skiers prepped for the Sochi Olympics, with an intense qualifying build-up of six contests in six weeks. For a double-threat skier like Kenworthy, the process was beyond exhausting.

“To be completely honest, I don’t think I ever felt supported by the U.S. Team,” Kenworthy said Wednesday in an interview with The Colorado Sun. “I was the only guy trying to qualify for both halfpipe and slopestyle. Sometimes we would have a halfpipe qualifying event in the evening after we already had a slopestyle final that day. So for everyone doing halfpipe, they get to rest all day and get ready for the contest and for me, I had just competed three hours earlier and maybe taken a bad crash or whatever it is and have to get right back out there. 

“Then with training camps, the pipe team would be in one location and the slopestyle team would be at a completely different resort, so I was always picking and choosing training, struggling with doubled up schedules.”

In 2014, Kenworthy earned a spot on both the halfpipe and slopestyle teams for the Olympic Games in Russia. He was the fourth and final addition to the halfpipe team, with two podiums in the qualifying contests.

A few days after he qualified for the pipe squad, coaches called with news they were going to give the fourth spot to Aspen’s Torin Yater-Wallace, who was recovering from an early-season injury following a dominant season the year before. 

“It was a bummer because I had killed myself at all those qualifying events doing halfpipe and slopestyle. I had done it all, everything they wanted, and then still didn’t get to go. That was pretty devastating to me,” he said. “It was a coaches’ discretion pick, and I don’t even disagree necessarily because Torin had been consistent on the podium the season before and I love Torin and he had been hurt during the qualifying events. It is what it is.”

Then, in 2018, Kenworthy barely missed the cut to ski the Olympic pipe. He had a very technical pipe run, which wowed judges when he landed it cleanly. 

In qualifying at Snowmass a month before the Pyeongchang Olympics, Kenworthy skied in eight events over three days in a last-chance bid for a spot on both the pipe and slopestyle teams. He won the final slopestyle competition at Snowmass, all but confirming his Olympic berth to South Korea. 

“But I was just wrecked, basically,” he said. “Just overworked and tired. That is one nice advantage going to Team GB is that I’m going to have a much more straight-shot approach at the games. I will go to whatever I have to go to, just like I would have for the U.S., but at the end of the day it won’t be me fighting with 20 others guys for four spots.”

Kenworthy said it was a little stressful battling for Olympic berths with friends he’s been skiing with for most of his professional life. 

“That’s one thing that is nice about this decision is essentially I won’t be taking a spot away from a friend. It’s not like there are a bunch of people from the U.K. who are right on the cusp and are trying to make it as well. Most of the people who have been putting in the work and training for the team are still going to be able to go,” he said. 

Response to the move to Team GB has been largely positive, Kenworthy said. It is not that uncommon, he noted, for U.S. athletes with dual citizenship to compete for another country. 

But the team-switching narrative typically involves athletes who maybe couldn’t make the cut for the U.S. Olympic team. Kenworthy said that isn’t the case with him. 

“I feel very confident I could make the team again, and I’ve made it twice,” Kenworthy said. “I also do know I am getting older and it’s a bitch to qualify and this is a different approach, but the reason I have said I’m doing this is for my mom and that really is the reason. If that wasn’t the case, I would struggle through the qualifying process again for the U.S.”

Read more skiing stories from The Colorado Sun

Kenworthy, whose mom often averts her gaze when her son is flipping and spinning over huge jumps, told her son she is “so stoked” for his shift to her home country. Part of her excitement may have to do with her son avoiding the risks of pushing through the U.S. qualification process. 

“This sport is so dangerous and you can kind of get hurt always,” said Kenworthy, who, after a practice-session crash, competed in the South Korea slopestyle finals with a badly bruised hip and a broken thumb. “And that’s where you make the calculated decisions about when to rest, when to go, when to do this trick and when to hold back. And when you are qualifying for the U.S. you don’t really have the luxury of looking at those choices. It just ‘go, go, go,’ regardless of how you are feeling.”

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