People love surprises. Well, I don’t, but that’s a different story. The kind of surprises I like are an unexpected twist in the plot of a movie or book. Sometimes the surprise is shocking, sometimes funny. And sometimes, it’s life-changing.
The Winter Olympics begin soon in PyeongChang, South Korea. Like most big sports events, human interest stories about the athletes are featured in the media. It’s a way of making a connection with these talented (mostly) young people at the height of their careers. Once you feel like you ‘know’ them, you’re more likely to tune in to their events and maybe others as well.
This morning I was reading an article about an athlete already in the news. Gus Kenworthy is an openly gay American freestyle skier representing the US in two events. He won a silver medal in Sochi in 2014 and is back for more. In many stories about him, being gay is the focus.
This article surprised me a lot, though I don’t think that was the intent. It’s an open letter from his mother, expressing her love and admiration for his courage. Pip Kenworthy knew she had her hands full from the beginning. When she found her 2-½ year old son happily climbing a ladder to the second floor of their house, she realized she had a daredevil on her hands. He eagerly embraced activities that scared the hell out of her.
It was almost in passing that she mentioned an event that changed Gus’ life. At 14, he and his buddies skied together in their hometown of Telluride, Colorado. Without the benefit of a coach, they taught themselves and enjoyed every minute. One day tragedy struck. The whole gang was riding on a snowcat, having a great time, when Gus’s best friend, Hoot, fell off and under the tracks.
No one should have to witness the death of a friend, much less a young teenager. His mother believes that Hoot’s death was a turning point for her son. He began to take his skiing much more seriously. What she didn’t know was that his grief, coupled with the secret he held inside him (being gay), drove him to wish he’d died instead of his friend. Somehow, some way, Gus was able to turn that tragedy into determination, and a career doing what he loved most. Because that was not only his dream, but Hoot’s.
I read the remainder of the article with that event in mind. The people I interviewed for my books have all admitted that experiencing the death of a friend changed them in ways they could not have predicted. Some changed careers, or moved to a different place. Some carried on their friend’s work, or supported causes important to that friend. But every one told me a variation of “I think about them every day.”
I look forward to cheering for Gus. And when I do, I’ll think about Hoot, who is certainly flying down the mountain sides with his buddy, in search of gold.