I love the Olympics. I love the pageantry. The sports. The challenges. The triumphs. The stories.
It was my dad, who was on the cross country team at Rutgers University (Class of ’49) who introduced me to the Olympics.
The first winter games I remember was in 1968, when I watched Peggy Fleming add ballet to skating to turn the figure skating sport on it’s heels. (Or should I say blades?) As I grew up, my dad and I continued to share our love of all things Olympics. We talked about heading south together and attending the summer games in Atlanta in 1996. We never went, though. I had two young children and a marriage that was falling apart. I wish we had, though.
The 2014 winter games held in Sochi, Russia were the last Olympics my dad and I shared. We didn’t get to watch the events together, but we’d discuss what happened when we talked at night.
One of the highlights for me was watching a dog story unfolding amidst the skiing and skating and snowboarding. Just before the Olympics began in February 2014, media reports stated that Russian authorities were poisoning the dogs, possibly concerned about the intense scrutiny that Olympics would bring. Russian authorities denied the reports.
During the games, dogs were everywhere, including the media tent where a young man named Robin MacDonald befriended a mother and her four pups. He texted his boyfriend a photo of the dogs.
His boyfriend happened to be an exceptional freestyle skier named Gus Kenworthy, who left the Olympic village to meet the dogs. The couple decided to adopt them, and through social media, the dogs — and Gus — became media darlings.
Then Gus went on to win a silver medal in Men’s freestyle skiing, an X-Games type of sport that includes acrobatics and aerial twists similar to the snowboarding events that made Shaun White a star. He credits the dogs with keeping him centered and calm as he prepared for his event.
I followed the story — and Gus — because those dogs tugged at my heart. I knew there were so many who weren’t so lucky. I was thrilled that the Sochi pups — as they became known — would have a great home. It was a wonderful story. Their adoption inspired many people to go to their local shelters and adopt dogs.
When I heard that Gus Kenworthy was going to be at BarkWorld earlier this month, and I might have a chance to interview him, I, as they say Couldn’t. Even.
The keynote speaker at BarkWorld, Gus told the story behind the Sochi pups. I didn’t know it at the time, but Gus had only a few weeks earlier come out in an ESPN interview.
Gus, who was 22 at the Olympics froze like a deer in the headlights when confronted with the intense media scrutiny that came from the dogs, his win, and the fact that Americans swept the Olympic freeskiing event — the third time in U.S. history that Americans brought home gold, silver and bronze medals in a single event at the Winter Games. Gus told the rapt audience at BarkWorld that he wished he had been strong enough at the time to tell the truth about his relationship with Robin. “I was in the closet at the time,” he said. “In hindsight I would have liked to given him the attention he deserved. I wasn’t ready to be open about that stuff yet.”
He had been so worried about coming out, afraid that people would judge him and not like him. Yet, at BarkWorld I didn’t see a single human — or dog blink — an eye at Gus’ revelation. After he spoke, a crowd gathered around him, posing for pictures with him, handing him their dogs.
I had a chance to interview Gus, to ask about the Sochi pups, and to get my picture taken with him. And yes, at first I was just a babbling fangirl; Gus smiled and posed with me, and then took the time to answer questions from me and a few others who had asked to interview him.
Today, Gus and Robin are no longer together; the two remaining pups (two unfortunately died before making it home) live with Robin in Vancouver. When the couple broke up, Gus didn’t think it fair to constantly fob the dogs on to friends and family, since he traveled so much when competing. He and Robin briefly considered each taking a dog, but neither felt that was right. Mishka and Jake “are always together,” Gus said in his talk. “They cuddle up and sleep next to each other. The cutest two peas in a pod.” It would have been cruel to separate them. Gus told me, “I miss them, but I don’t feel bad that they’re there” because the dogs are well taken care of.” Robin runs the dogs’ social media accounts; you can follow them on Instagram @thesochipups.
The pups’ mother, Mamushka, was adopted by Gus’ parents, who dote on her. “They take her for a walk every morning, a hike every evening,” Gus told the audience at BarkWorld.
Gus hopes to compete in the next winter Olympics in 2018. Those games will take place in PyeongChang, South Korea — one of the few countries on earth where dogs are eaten as food. I’m willing to bet, if the South Koreans still think that dog meat is acceptable, Gus will shine a light on that as well. Because not only is Gus Kenworthy arguably the best freestyle skier in the world, but he’s also shown the world his true self, and that includes his love for animals.
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