Anouk Patty has a message — “When you’re your true self, you’re your best self every day.”
As the recently named “Chief of Sport” for U.S. Ski & Snowboard — the organization that, in part, represents the United States in competitions like the Olympics, and as an openly gay woman and former member of the team, Patty knows how important that message is.
When she was on the team in the 80s and early 90s she was not out, and for good reason. “Society then was very, very different,” she told OUTvoices in an exclusive interview. “It was not super-accepted to be gay. It was not something people talked about. The sports world was pretty homophobic."
Anouk Patty, Chief of Sport for US Ski & Snowboard
Photo courtesy of U.S. Ski and Snowboard
But the world is different now than it was. “Everything is different,” she said.
Part of that is because some athletes have taken that giant step to live in their truth in the past few years.
The cover of ESPN Magazine in which Gus Kenworthy came out of the closet.
Photo courtesy of Gus Kenworthy Twitter
Seven years ago, U.S. Ski & Snowboard team member (and legit heartthrob) Gus Kenworthy, fresh off his Silver Medal in the Sochi Olympics, came out of the closet during an interview with ESPN. As if that wasn’t enough, at the Pyeongchang Olympics in 2018 he shared a smooch with his boyfriend on live television.
Asked what impact that had, Patty didn’t mince words.
“It was pretty monumental when Gus came out,” she said. “He’s super nice, super handsome, really good. He had everything there. When he came out, people really paid attention.”
Patty noted that even though Kenworthy would later compete as part of the U.K. team (his mother is British) Kenworthy is still “beloved” in Park City, where the U.S. team is headquartered. “Gus is phenomenal,” she said. In fact, he’s their unofficial poster boy. Like, really. Patty says there’s a big poster of Kenworthy in the kitchen of the team’s Park City headquarters.
“It’s not just because he’s gay,” Patty said. “It’s because he’s wonderful and he cared and he had a purpose and a cause and he cared about it — and he did something about it.”
It’s an example Patty herself is following.
Since Kenworthy’s coming out, Patty noted, the progress has slowed. There haven’t been many other athletes on the team who have come out and there haven’t been a lot in the other sports, with one major exception.
Two-Time US National Alpine Ski Champion Hig Roberts
Photo courtesy of Higs Roberts via Twitter
Two-time U.S. Champion Hig Roberts (another legit heartthrob) became the first elite men’s Alpine skier to come out. Roberts made the revelation at the end of his career in 2020. Roberts’ experience mirrored in many ways Patty’s own a few decades earlier. In an interview with The New York Times, Roberts said “Not being able to be who I am and not be openly gay as a professional athlete was truly hindering my performance.”
Like Kenworthy, Roberts’ purpose to come out was, in part, to send a message to young skiers that they can compete at the highest levels regardless of their sexuality.
“I love this sport more than anything,” he told the Times. “I’m so lucky and privileged to be doing this — but I can’t go on another day not trying to achieve the person that I am meant to be. Which I think for each and every one of us … needs to be happiness and authenticity.”
Roberts’ coming out, according to the Times, added the number of openly gay elite-level skiers to just four. The other two, Anja Pärson, a former Alpine skier from Sweden, came out as lesbian in 2012, and Erik Schinegger wrote a book in 1988 about his experience as a transgender and intersex skier after coming out in 1968.
While the bravery of Kenworthy and Roberts and their predecessors is noteworthy and incredible, Patty says there’s still more work to do before the Team has reached its full potential of being a welcoming place to all athletes of every stripe. She also recognizes the power to effect that kind of change systemically lies with her.
“I have the opportunity to actually make a difference in this specific area,” she said. “I’m working hard to make it a really inclusive, welcoming environment.”
When will that work be done? It’s not easy to say, but Kenworthy and Roberts have helped, to be sure. “We have a Trans athlete on the team now who is a named athlete,” she said. “We’re inching along.” But she’d like to see more.
“When we have a truly inclusive culture where athletes are not only comfortable being their true selves but embrace it and we have some openly gay athletes who can be role models for the next ones, then I’ll feel good about it. We’re not there but we’re taking the first step in creating that environment where we can be there.”
As a sign of how far skiing and snowboarding has not come, earlier this year Italian skiier Sofia Goggia, the 2018 Olympic Gold Medalist in Alpine skiing made a statement that implied gay men weren't cut out for the rigors of the slopes professionally. Goggia, who apparently had never heard of Hig Roberts, had been asked if she thought there were any gay professional skiers. "Among women, yes," she said. "Not for men, I would say." Her reasoning? "You have to throw yourself down the Streif in Kitzbühel."
In subsequent tweets, Goggia would apologize, but not for the statement, only to those who were offended by it.
While Patty's efforts at diversifying the team and the sport are notable and courageous, there may be some blowback, as people like Goggia aren’t accustomed to cultural change, especially in high performance sports.
“It’s not always a smooth ride,” Patty said. “The way you handle the paradoxes you’re presented with define who you are as a leader. I think it’s the same thing for those of us who are openly gay and in leadership positions. I get it, not everyone’s gonna love it. Thats ok with me but it doesn’t stop me.”