He grew up with cats and didn’t get his first dog until he was 11 years old. Yet one of the things that Gus Kenworthy is known for is rescuing stray dogs. Specifically, a mother and her puppies who were found in Sochi, Russia, during the 2014 Winter Olympics.
Oh, and there’s that other thing Gus is known for: Winning an Olympic silver medal in Men’s Freestyle Skiing, an X-Games-type sport that includes acrobatics and aerial twists, similar to the snowboarding events that made Shaun White a star.
After he won the silver medal, a media maelstrom swirled around Gus, and his story was covered worldwide. Anyone who follows the Olympics or skiing or pet rescue — or who wasn’t hiding under a rock that February — knows the story of Gus and the Sochi pups.
But there’s one huge detail Gus held close. One important part of the story he hadn’t told. One secret he regrets keeping.
It was Gus’ boyfriend at the time, Robin MacDonald, who told Gus about the pups. It was Robin who stayed behind in Sochi for a month and pulled every string he could to get the dogs out of Russia.
Gus, who was 22 at the time, hadn’t come out publicly. Thrust into the limelight, he froze like a deer in the headlights, and stayed silent. To the world, Robin became nothing more than the “friend” who helped him with the dogs. Gus told the audience at BarkWorld Expo 2015 earlier this month, where he was a keynote speaker, and reiterated to Dogster after that he wishes he had been strong enough at the time to tell the truth of who he was, to be open about his relationship with Robin, and to acknowledge the part that Robin played in bringing the dogs home.
On the stage at BarkWorld, the Olympic champion shared the story behind the rescue of the Sochi pups.
In 2013, Gus spent some time in Sochi, and he saw the stray dogs who were everywhere. 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 the Olympics would bring. Russian authorities denied the reports.
In Russia, “people don’t have dogs as pets,” Gus said during his BarkWorld speech. “They’re a street animal. Lots of people have pet cats, but not pet dogs.”
Robin, a photographer and videographer, was working in the Gorky media tent at the Sochi Olympics when he sent Gus a photo of a stray dog and her four pups who were hanging around, probably looking for food and attention. Gus was smitten; he left the village and took “a gondola and two buses” to see the dogs. Once he met them, he knew he needed to bring them home.
Leading up to his event, Gus would visit the dog and her puppies, which were about five weeks old when he first met them. The dogs served as a welcome distraction for Gus as he prepared to compete. Gus told the audience at BarkWorld that he tends to “overthink” before a run. Like trainers and mental coaches before a game, the dogs helped calm Gus, centering him, and giving him something else to focus on. He credits their influence for enabling him to nail the excellent performance that earned him the silver medal. Because of the dogs, “I went to the competition ready, rather than worried,” he told Dogster.
The Americans swept the inaugural Olympic Men’s Freestyle Skiing event — only the third time in U.S. history that Americans brought home gold, silver, and bronze medals in a single event at the Winter Games.
Afterward, the three skiers were sought after by media all over the world, but especially in the U.S. Gus went back to the states, and Robin stayed in Russia to work on getting the dogs out. By then, the Sochi pups were sequestered in a government building; Gus and Robin felt that the Russian officials didn’t want the dogs to leave because they had so much attention on them. Robin brought the dogs food every day.
And then Rosa, one of the puppies, died.
That may have been the catalyst for the Russians to release the dogs. With the help of Humane Society International, Robin brought the mother, now named Mamushka, and the three remaining pups home. Once they arrived in New York, all four were tended to by veterinarians. But that was not enough for another of the dogs, Sochi, who died there.
Social media was in love with Mamushka and the remaining dogs, Jake and Mishka. It was “like they were everybody’s dogs because they gained so much attention,” Gus told the BarkWorld audience. Pet adoptions increased in the U.S.; Gus received notes from rescue organizations thanking him for increasing people’s awareness of the benefits of adopting rescued animals.
Yet there was also a negative response. “Why would you adopt a dog from Russia when there are so many in the U.S.?” people asked him. Gus told BarkWorld attendees that he didn’t go to Russia with the intention of bringing home a dog. “If I had decided I wanted a dog, I would have gone to a shelter in the states.” But, Gus said, reflecting what so many of us with rescued pets know, “Once your heart gets connected with a dog, you don’t really think about where it comes from. You just want to save them.”
Mamushka was adopted by Gus’ parents, who dote on her. “They take her for a walk every morning, a hike every evening,” Gus said. Jake and Mishka, however, didn’t accompany Gus to BarkWorld. “It would have been too stressful for them,” he told Dogster. They’d much rather go swimming in the lake near where Robin lives.
Today, Gus and Robin are no longer together, and the pups live with Robin in Vancouver. When the couple broke up, Gus didn’t think it was fair to constantly leave the dogs with friends and family, since he travels 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. They cuddle up and sleep next to each other. The cutest two peas in a pod,” said Gus. Nods of agreement could be seen throughout the audience at BarkWorld; it would have been cruel to separate them.
“I miss them, but I don’t feel bad that they’re there,” Gus told Dogster, as the dogs are well taken care of. Robin runs the dogs’ social media accounts; you can follow them on Instagram @TheSochiPups.
It was just a few weeks ago in late October that Gus Kenworthy came out publicly. Press coverage included a profile on ESPN titled “Gus Kenworthy’s Next Bold Move: Coming Out” and an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper. In those stories and others he explains his struggle in more detail, and is happy to finally feel comfortable with who he is within the hyper-masculine atmosphere of extreme sports.
Still, Gus regrets that he wasn’t able to be that open and give credit to his boyfriend when they brought the Sochi dogs home. Looking back at his younger self, he told the BarkWorld audience, “I was in the closet at the time. In hindsight, I would have liked to give him the attention he deserved. I wasn’t ready to be open about that stuff yet.”
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, he’s also someone with the courage to show the world his true self, and that includes his love for animals.
Read more interviews on Dogster:
About the author: Susan C. Willett is a writer, photographer, and blogger whose award-winning original stories, photography, poetry, and humor can be found at Life With Dogs and Cats. She lives in New Jersey with three dogs and four cats (all rescues) and at least a couple of humans–all of whom provide inspiration for her work. Refusing to take sides in the interweb’s dogs vs. cats debate, Susan enjoys observing the interspecies interaction among the varied inhabitants of her home–like living in a reality TV show, only furrier. In addition to Life With Dogs and Cats, you can find more Lilah, Jasper, and Tucker (and the rest of the gang) on Haiku by Dog™, Haiku by Cat™, and Dogs and Cats Texting.