Olympic freeskier Gus Kenworthy knows that when he tells the story of how he met his boyfriend, Matthew Wilkas, it can sound a little strange to some.
Yes, they met on Instagram and, yes, it was after Kenworthy sent Wilkas a message once they were following one another (what in slang terms would be called “sliding into his DMs”).
But it’s not that unusual, really, Kenworthy tells PEOPLE.
“It sounds bizarre, because I’ve said it to people and they were like, ‘I didn’t know people did that,’ ” Kenworthy, 26, says in Pyeongchang, South Korea, not long after he competed in the 2018 Winter Olympics.
“And it’s like, it is weird,” Kenworthy says, “but I’ve met actually a lot of other couples that have met on Instagram … I think it’s kind of commonplace. It’s almost like a dating app or anything because you get a sense of someone, their personality, what they do, who they are, what they look like, whatever. And so it makes it easy to kind of establish a connection early on.”
And so, he continues, he and Wilkas connected on Instagram. Kenworthy was already familiar with the actor from his starring role in the 2012 romantic-comedy Gayby (“which is hilarious if you haven’t seen it”).
“I remember thinking [from that movie] that he was funny and cute and that was kind of it,” Kenworthy says. “I remembered his name, and then a little while later on the popular page of Instagram his profile came up — and he makes these really stupid little videos on his Instagram, but they’re very funny and they’re very endearing and so I followed him and he followed me back.”
(Kenworthy, a faithful Instagram user, has also been sharing photos of himself during the Games — including this shot of his “bruised peach.”)
A “while later” — Kenworthy underlines “while” — he messaged Wilkas and said he thought Wilkas was “super cute” and funny and maybe they could get a coffee when Kenworthy was next in New York City.
At this point, Kenworthy, who won a silver medal at the Winter Games in Russia in 2014, was still closeted. (He came out in October 2015.)
As Kenworthy remembers it, Wilkas said yes and then gave him his phone number. But one digit was off, either by mistake or not, so the two didn’t meet.
“And then forever later” — and here Kenworthy underlines “forever” — he says: “I sent [Wilkas] another message, I guess because I’m annoying, but I was like, ‘Hey, I’m coming back to New York, I know it’s been like a year, but if you’re around I’d love to say hey,’ and he was like, ‘Oh my gosh I’d love to.’ ”
They got dinner, they “hit it off” and about two and a half years later they are still going strong, despite the challenges of the frequent separations required by Kenworthy’s skiing career.
Sometimes they’ll have days together sandwiched between weeks apart.
“It definitely has its ups and downs,” Kenworthy says. “With my job, I’m always on the road, so I think that makes it pretty tough … I think that’s hard for any relationship, and long-distance is tough.”
But Wilkas is “an amazing communicator,” Kenworthy says, “and so we kind of just talk through everything and work through stuff, and I’d say it’s a pretty good relationship. I’m happy about it.”
Phones help, too: “[We] FaceTime a lot, text, I send him photos of things I see throughout the day,” Kenworthy has said.
Wilkas was with Kenworthy’s family to cheer him on at his Olympic slopestyle event earlier this week, where Kenworthy qualified well before placing 12th out of 12 in the finals.
While Kenworthy is vague about his future plans in the sport, he mentions possibly wanting to act like Wilkas — splitting his time between Los Angeles and N.Y.C.
And despite his loss, Kenworthy had “a first” when a pre-competition kiss between him and Wilkas was televised by NBC.
“Anyone watching at home, I hope it helped them,” he says, “because I know that it would have helped me a lot as a kid if I would have seen an openly gay athlete in the Olympics or in major league sports kissing their boyfriend and having people be okay with it. It would have changed my whole life.”
The 2018 Winter Olympics are airing live on NBC. To learn more, visit teamusa.org.