Hig Roberts, an American former World Cup alpine ski racer who skyrocketed to the top as a member of the U.S. National team, has come out as gay.
Roberts, who is the first U.S. Alpine Ski Team member and the first male World Cup alpine skier in the world to come out, opens up in an interview with Out about struggling with his sexual identity, how he felt “muted” by the Olympics organization, his evolution toward accepting himself, and what he believes needs to change in the world of sports to create a more inclusive environment for players.
Roberts was first alternate to the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympic Games, a year that saw a record-breaking 15 out LGBTQ+ people competing in the Winter Olympics. Three of them were Team USA: Brittany Bowe (speedskating), Gus Kenworthy (slopestyle free skiing), and Adam Rippon (figure skating). Roberts was not out to his team at the time.
"[Being in the closet] took away a lot of the experience and the joy I could have experienced during this life and that’s a shame,” Roberts tells Out. “I had moments of standing on the podium with national titles and still feeling depressed. I was almost in a daze because of the mental anguish I would feel. I had sleepless nights. I had anxiety attacks. I had big bouts of depression. I had to closet all of that from my teammates and my coaches.”
“I was the smallest kid on all of my sports teams,” Roberts says of his beginnings. “That built my persona in the way I approached sports, which was with a lot of grit and tenacity because I had to prove myself and make up for this lack of size and dominance I had on the field, or the ice hockey rink, or the ski hill.”
That fight was in a way ideal for alpine skiing, which is notoriously one of the most brutal, hyper-masculine, and aggressive sports there is with winners often decided by a split-second time difference. Unlike other types of skiing, alpine is a forceful race down snow-covered slopes with fixed-heel bindings (a device that connects a ski boot to the ski). In many cultures where skiing is a prominent focus, alpine is considered more dangerous than contact sports.
In those early days, skiing was a focal point of Roberts's upbringing. In his town, Nordic skiing was the physical education at school, and those who were great at it were praised within the community. As such, the sport took over his childhood until he suffered a debilitating femur break at 9 years old that required surgery. For almost a year, he was forced to remain in a wheelchair with metal rods in his body.
“The beautiful thing about that whole process is that I think from [an early age], I experienced adversity in sports,” he says. “Sports almost got taken away from me before I could even get going.” The experiences instilled in him a drive, and once he healed from the injury he jumped back in the sport, newly focused. The result was support from his family, especially his twin sister, which encouraged him to go even further. The race became so much that he admits he had no time to cultivate his own identity in the midst of it all.
“I didn't know what gay was in terms of how that could exist in the spaces I loved and the spaces I found myself, which was sports,” he says. “I was not sure if what I was feeling was matching up with the way I was perceiving gayness at that time, which was obviously a wrong [depiction]. That's a big reason for me speaking up as an athlete. As athletes, the visibility for LGBTQ+ people has been very quiet. There hasn't been a lot of representation in the space, especially in alpine skiing, a very masculine, aggressive, strength-based sport.”
While he wrestled internally with his sexuality, Roberts saw himself begin to "develop behaviors of overcompensation and very try-hard attitudes."
“When I got older, I started to feel like my brain was playing this trick on me,” he says. “I was trying to balance these feelings of being gay but also not truly believing that [I] could be successful in such a masculine sport. I felt like I was becoming trapped by a series of unspoken rules of masculinity the athletic world taught me at a young age, more specifically the alpine skiing world was teaching me to be, especially when I became a professional and started touring in Europe.”
Choosing athletes for the U.S. Olympic team underscores these perceptions as Roberts says they typicaly recruit those who check a lot of "traditional" boxes. Once he was within the Olympic organization, he says he was “fighting” for his life while hiding who he really was out of fear of losing sponsorships.
“The decision of my career stood in the perception of other people and the money that they were willing to give me to keep me going,” he explains. “An amazing thing about the Olympics is that it’s a time for the world to literally get together and be united in the hopes of progressing together. The whole range of triumphs and failures, you relate to it. I think what comes out of it is social progress. You see that in the form of the Olympics, but there's also this strong pressure on Olympic athletes that your voice doesn't necessarily matter. And that is not okay.”
“Athletes are not able to show political expression,” he says of the protocol Olympians face. “You're not allowed to use your platform at the Olympics for anything more than sport.”
Changes are happening within the Olympics organization, slowly but surely. Earlier this year, Casey Wasserman, chairman of the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics, wrote to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to advocate for changes to be made to the controversial Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter prohibiting demonstrations that display political, religious, or racial propaganda.
According to Sportico, Wasserman addressed the letter to IOC President Thomas Bach and urged him "to allow and encourage athletes to advocate against racism anywhere they can, including on and off the field of play.” He later added, "Being anti-racist is not political. Being anti-racist is central to our core human principles and, therefore, an embodiment of everything the Olympic Games symbolizes."
Roberts argues these kinds of changes will not only allow athletes to reach their full potential, but it will help encourage the world to have conversations about love and acceptance using sports as a unifier.
“I felt muted,” he says of his time in the Olympics. “I felt from the get-go that I should feel lucky to be there, not necessarily deserving to be there. It clamped down on my ability to express myself. There were moments where you hear homophobic slurs, and, you know, I was relying on lots of sponsors to stay alive or equipment for money. And I would hear things that would make me very hesitant to believe that my career could continue while also being an identifiable gay man.”
At the same time, he remembers reading stories as a teenager about LGBTQ+ athletes like Olympian Greg Louganis and watching the public response to coming out stories like Jason Collins, Johnny Weir, Robbie Rogers, Megan Rapinoe, Gus Kenworthy, and Adam Rippon.
“I remember being so scared, and almost disappointed, that maybe I’ll never get to the point of being strong enough to do something like that,” he says. “I hadn’t seen anyone like me or a role model to relate to. Fortunately, I found them after my skiing career.”
Roberts now hopes to get involved with Olympic athletes in the future, whether that's “through agency or managerial positions, getting involved in IOC or the USSP, or groups like Wasserman Media Group or LA Foundation, who are realizing the potential we have here, to change this.” The hope is to help foster spaces where athletes are comfortable enough to come out while still playing.
“A big thing that I am going to continue to derive from my athletic career is the ability to look back and say, ‘That was really, really cool. I traveled the world. I competed with the best. I was one of the best and I truly did it on my own.’ I put in more effort into surviving and making it happen than anyone," he says. "I'll have that ability to truly be proud of that, but I wish I could also look back on it and say, ‘I did all of that while truly being happy as an individual.’ I think that's a very tough pill to swallow, that I had the opportunity to be pursuing a once in a lifetime thing but I wasn't allowing myself to even feel it completely because my happiness wasn't there. I wasn't able to be openly gay and be the person that I wanted to be.”
Still, Roberts affirms everything happens for a reason. His life-altering injury, the death of his brother, which happened after Roberts graduated college, and the trauma of being in the closet in sports were simply part of his story.
“I'm a firm believer that my journey happened the way it was supposed to have happened, to go through all this turmoil and struggle to arrive at the destination,” he says. “I've had to embrace that this is the way my story was supposed to play out. When I came out, it was truly time. I was ready in all facets of my life.”
“Sports has been too far behind normal society in terms of accepting LGBTQ+ people and accepting people who are different,” he explains. “We could potentially have two Olympic Games in the next six months. If Tokyo happens it's really the first time the world is truly getting back together. It’s such an opportune moment for athletes and brands and countries and people to renew everything and say, ‘We've made it.’ It's a missed opportunity if the space doesn’t improve. I think Olympic athletes are the perfect platform.”
His advice for queer athletes is simple: Be happy. “I want that to be possible for people but I also want those athletes to know and these kids to know that there are people out there who have felt the same things. You need to do this on your own time and it needs to be your journey,” he says. “You can drive yourself into the darkest realms of holes and loneliness. I think a lot of people are doing that right now, but you also have just as easy an ability to change that narrative for yourself. If it’s too scary to do it, you're not a coward. You're not a weak person.”
“I have a firm belief in the goodness of people,” he continues. “You will be OK. Most importantly, you will be on the way to being a happy person and a better human being and I think that's a beautiful thing.”
Unless otherwise noted, all photography is by Kacey Cole.