As he prepared to barrel down the slopes in northern Vermont at an event in March 2019, Hig Roberts decided this would be his last race as a professional Alpine skier. It was the day before his 28th birthday, he was skiing in the Nor-Am Cup at the high school where he once trained and it just felt right.
The only thing that had felt right in a while.
Roberts had made a name for himself among the international elite of Alpine skiing — a sport in which speed, strength and focus are the currency. Though he missed a spot on the American team for the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics, he had made 31 World Cup starts, competed for the U.S. Ski team and won two national titles.
Yet despite such success, whenever he was preparing to fly down a mountain at 80 to 90 miles an hour, where the slightest mistake could result in death, his mind would drift far from the competition.
“Not being able to be who I am and not be able to be openly gay as a professional athlete was truly hindering my performance,” Roberts said in an interview this month with The New York Times in which he came out publicly.
He is the first current or former male Alpine skier of his caliber to come out publicly as gay in a sport seen as closed and clubby.
Roberts, who recently returned to the United States after stepping away from the sport to work in finance in Norway, decided to come out in part to inspire young skiers with the message that they can compete at the highest levels no matter their sexuality.
“I just woke up one morning and I said, ‘Enough is enough,’” Roberts said. “I love this sport more than anything — 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, one of those main goals needs to be happiness and authenticity.”
He joins only a few L.G.B.T.Q. athletes in elite skiing who are out. Anja Pärson, a former Alpine skier from Sweden, came out as lesbian in 2012. Erik Schinegger wrote a book in 1988 about his experience as a transgender and intersex skier after coming out in 1968. And Gus Kenworthy, a former U.S. freestyle skier who now competes for Britain, came out as gay on ESPN in 2015.
Across men’s sports in general, there are few openly gay athletes. In the four North American major leagues — the N.F.L., the N.B.A., the N.H.L. and M.L.B. — there are no active players who publicly identify as L.G.B.T.Q., though a handful of former athletes have come out in recent years. If a team signs Ryan Russell, a free agent who came out as bisexual in 2019, he would be the second active, openly gay or bisexual N.F.L. player ever.
In women’s sports, there are many prominent gay players, including the soccer star and World Cup champion Megan Rapinoe and her fiancée, the W.N.B.A. all-star Sue Bird.
Roberts said a hyper-masculine vibe permeated Alpine skiing and put pressure on him to conform, especially when competing in Europe, where Alpine skiers are big celebrities.
While on the World Cup ski circuit from 2015-19, Roberts said he found himself in an atmosphere that almost encouraged womanizing. Instead, he opted for his hotel room, alone.
“There’s this idea that being a professional skier in Europe, you’re garnering the attention of women and you’re almost a little bit larger than life,” he said.
He and others also said an insular nature in the sport may discourage people from coming out.
“I think it’s vital to understand the broader atmosphere around Alpine skiing — it’s got its own unique ecosystem,” said Chris French, founder of Ski Bums, the world’s largest L.G.B.T.Q. skiing and snowboarding club. “It’s rural, it’s remote and it’s overwhelmingly white and wealthy. It’s got its own tourism, real estate, products and services — even media.”
Raised in the skiing hotbed of Steamboat Springs, Colo., Roberts does not remember strapping on his first pair of skis. He was barely 2.
At age 9, before his first big competition, he shattered his femur in an accident that he, his parents and his doctors thought would preemptively end his career. But he had a feel for and a draw toward the slopes. So Roberts, who was also small for his age, came back from a risky surgery and trained harder and longer to prove to himself and others that he belonged.
When he was about 12, he started to question whether he might be gay but dismissed the notion. Based on what he had seen at the elite level and in his small mountain town, being gay did not fit his perception of the Alpine skier, an image he was already struggling to emulate.
Roberts eventually made it to the World Cup circuit, and his path was unusual. He was recruited to U.S. Ski Team B after graduating in 2014 from Middlebury College in Vermont. Few college skiers join the national team, but Roberts set himself apart at the World University Games in Trentino, Italy, in December 2013, placing 7th overall in the giant slalom.
According to his ranking going in, he should have been closer to 40th.
As he ascended in the sport and struggled again with his sexual identity, the slopes became a safe haven — the only place he could freely fly down a mountain.
Until his world came crashing down.
In August 2016 his younger brother, Murphy, died after he had a diabetic seizure while on a hike, fell and sustained a head injury. Murphy was 22.
The sudden loss of his brother was a blow that almost ended Roberts’s career; he recalled Murphy as the “most special person” in his life. Murphy, who grew up with Type 1 diabetes, taught Roberts one of his most valuable lessons: Live every day authentically yourself.
After a brief break Roberts returned to skiing with a helmet bearing the slogan “Send it for Murph,” even as the loss of his brother and the burden of hiding his sexuality ate away at his mental health.
“I began to thrive in the environments when things were the worst,” he said.
That’s why on a foggy, rainy day in 2017 — under conditions that no one would want to ski in — Roberts knew he would win his first national title for the giant slalom in Sugarloaf, Maine, edging out Tim Jitloff, a seven-time national champion.
But Roberts did not feel like a national champion, nor did he when he won the national title for slalom in 2018. He had developed late, lost a brother, knew he was gay and did not love what he was doing. Seeing no one else like him, he wondered if he really belonged at all.
The response when Kenworthy came out in 2015 was welcoming over all, but skiers of all levels and sports media debated whether the space was actually inclusive.
U.S. Ski and Snowboard has had an inclusion statement incorporating sexual orientation since 2018, however little had been done to enforce its goals, said Ellen Adams, who oversees diversity, equity and inclusion for the sport’s national governing body. This year, amid the nation’s broader examination of racial inequity, the organization is undergoing an audit to identify more concrete initiatives, like putting more pictures of women and skiers of color in their media materials and allowing a “nonbinary” option for membership registration.
“If you can’t see yourself on our website, in public-facing content, how do you know that you can do that?” Adams said.
Roberts continues to ski recreationally, although he does not expect to compete like he used to. He still participates in an annual hometown race dedicated to Murphy. And he looks forward to living freely, the way his brother taught him to.
“I am gay,” Roberts said. “It’s part of me and I’m proud of it, and I’m ready to be happy.”