Interview: Olympic Medalist Gus Kenworthy

gus-kenworthy

When American freestyle skier Gus Kenworthy won a silver medal at the 2014 Sochi Olympics, he never imagined that a different snowy hillside would bring him an even bigger reward. But when friend and photographer Robin MacDonald texted pictures he had taken of five stray dogs outside the Olympic media center, destiny took over.

Kenworthy immediately fell in love, and tweeted a photo with them captioned, “Look who I just found!” A month, 20,000 re-tweets, a media maelstrom and some assistance from Humane Society International (HSI) later, Kenworthy and MacDonald brought the dogs to the United States.

“The media attention actually helped in the long run,” says MacDonald. “The Russian government was hesitant and there was a lot of resistance, but the coverage helped get support and eventually move us through the adoption process.”

“I had no clue the story would blow up the way it did,” muses Kenworthy. “I thought people would think [the original pic on Twitter] was cute because the dogs were so cute.”

While cuteness was definitely a factor, the story also helped spotlight a bigger problem in Sochi: the extermination of the city’s stray dogs in preparation for the Games.

“I knew about the stray dog problem in Sochi, but I didn’t expect to do anything about it,” recalls Kenworthy. “These dogs were so sweet, and we could see they needed some help. We both knew we had to do something to make their lives better.”

Their first order of business was getting the dogs the medical care they needed, like preventive care and vaccines. To receive an official health clearance to enter the United States, the dogs’ “pet passports” had to be stamped with all core vaccinations and proof of treatment against parasites.  Because of the lack of veterinary care and harsh life on the streets, two of the puppies ultimately died from malnutrition. But the rest – and their mother – are now thriving in the U.S.

“The dogs love going on hikes,” says Kenworthy of his two pups, Mishka and Jake. “The first time I took them out I was nervous, but they crushed it. They played in the river and ran around everywhere; it was awesome.”

Appropriately for a skier’s pets, they also love snow.

“They bury themselves in it and then pop up out of it. They eat it, roll around in it…anytime it snows they are insane.”

Once homeless and starving, Mishka and Jake have effortlessly settled into their new home – and a new, healthy lifestyle – with Kenworthy in Telluride, Co. Still, hints of their former life remain.

“You can see on walks their noses are always on the ground searching for something to eat,” says Kenworthy. “Mishka will literally eat anything. They both always follow us to fridge thinking they are going to get something. Jake and Mishka love each other– but the one thing they won’t share is food.”

The mother dog (whom the duo dubbed Mama) has a taste of the good life, too, especially since being adopted by Kenworthy’s own mother.

“They completely bonded – they do everything together. My mom is more active now that she has a companion, not just in the house but in town and at work. They are both up and out the door early, going on hikes, walks and to the park every day.”

Rescuing dogs from the Olympics may have been a big win for Kenworthy and MacDonald, but the friends stress that potential adopters should start in their own back yard.

“I would do it again if I saw dogs in need,” says MacDonald, “but I would always recommend looking in your local shelter first. Stray dogs are not just in Sochi, but all over the world.”

“We get inundated with messages from people asking, ‘How do we get Sochi pups?’” says Kenworthy. “[But] there shouldn’t be anything significant about these dogs. There are strays in every country.”

Strays who desperately need homes and hearts like the ones Jake, Mishka and Mama found. With care and love from someone who never expected to make a difference, the “Sochi pups” have become strong, happy, healthy dogs.

Gus admits that rescued dogs do tug at the heartstrings, but says in the end homeless hounds are just like any other.

“I kept thinking how they had never been spoiled, so I probably overdid it at first with treats, affection, cuddling and playing,” says Kenworthy. “In the beginning, with all of the dogs, I was thinking, ‘Oh, you’ve had a hard life, so I’ll give you anything.’ Now it is more, ‘I love you so much, I’ll give you everything.’”

— published in fetch! magazine, the “Rescue Me” issue