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Cloudy future became rainbow for US skier

David Wharton, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Olympics

Some friends called to apologize for past instances when they had uttered derogatory phrases. Competitors soon noticed a change in Kenworthy on the mountain.

Always the nervous type before competitions, he seemed a little more at ease, winning in Breckenridge and finishing second in the halfpipe standings on the World Cup circuit that season. The next year brought medals in superpipe, slopestyle and big air at the X Games.

"He doesn't have to hold back or have something eating away inside of him," teammate Maddie Bowman says. "He's been skiing his best."

Things went just as well off the slopes for Kenworthy, who attracted little sponsorship interest in Sochi but fielded multiple offers a year later. His good looks and genuine personality helped.

As a marketing professor, Rohm understands Kenworthy's appeal as an endorser but also suspects that corporations face a challenge in how they use him.

"You don't want to come off as too overt, like we're sponsoring a gay man, we're cool," he says. "That can come across as being disingenuous. The storytelling has to be more about his struggle or the courage he needed to have."

--Sponsored Video--

Some sponsors suggested ad campaigns that made Kenworthy cringe, but over the last two years most have found a reasonable balance between his personal life and his athletic achievements.

A recent Head & Shoulders commercial features a montage of images that show him dressed in U.S. team gear, then holding a rainbow flag overhead, and then soaring off a slopestyle jump.

"My shoulders carry more than my country's pride," he says in the spot. "They carry my community's pride, my family's pride ... and pride in myself."

This notion has resonated with LGBTQ fans who now show up at his competitions. Other freestyle skiers have noticed the new contingent. As Bowman says: "The more, the merrier."

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