"What brands like Procter & Gamble need to sell soap is an emotional connection," says Andy Rohm, a marketing professor at Loyola Marymount. "They need people with real stories to make their products stand out."
Celebrity was not new to the 26-year-old Kenworthy, who was born in England and moved to Telluride, Colo., as a kid. He won silver at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi and generated a buzz on social media by rescuing puppies off the streets of that Russian city.
But freestyle skiing was relatively new to the Olympics, not as mainstream as snowboarding, so his fame was limited. There was reason to fear living openly.
"This was his livelihood, his income," says Michael Spencer, his longtime agent.
When Martina Navratilova came out in the early 1980s, she estimated it cost her $10 million in endorsements. Kenworthy took a chance if only because he worried about his skiing.
Freestyle can be a risky sport. In the halfpipe version, competitors launch themselves high into the air; on the slopestyle course, they perform acrobatic tricks off rails and jumps. Mistakes can mean torn knees and dislocated shoulders.
Keeping a secret, Kenworthy says, "was something ever-present, always distracting me."
Deciding to tell his story to ESPN the Magazine, he had to wait a month between the interview and the publication date. It was a nervous time, without much sleep.
The morning his article hit the stands, Kenworthy was flooded with so many calls and texts that his cellphone briefly shut down. Although the predictable internet trolls spewed hatred, the reaction was mostly positive.
"It made all of us kind of realize, dang, that was cool," teammate Aaron Blunck says. "I just kind of gave him that respect -- 'Hey, man, we're proud of you.'"