Olympic Trailblazer Adam Rippon Is Ready for His Voice to Be Heard

Joon Lee@iamjoonleeStaff WriterFebruary 15, 2018

Adam Rippon of the United States reacts after his performance in the men's single skating free skating in the Gangneung Ice Arena at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Gangneung, South Korea, Monday, Feb. 12, 2018. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)
Julie Jacobson/Associated Press

GANGNEUNG, South Korea — It was his first day practicing on the ice, but Adam Rippon couldn't help himself. He wanted to dance.

As the stoic Nathan Chen skated around the practice rink at the Gangneung Ice Arena, Rippon stood near center ice shimmying his shoulders. Under the low ceiling and fluorescent lights of the practice rink tucked below the ice where he made his Olympic debut this week, Rippon didn't plan on changing what got him here.

Watching Rippon glide around a rink is like watching a bucket of joy pour itself, slowly, into a pool. When many skaters fight nerves, he can be spotted smiling, often unable to contain his excitement for what will likely mark his first and only time representing the Red, White and Blue.

He's dreamed of this moment his entire life, but he wasn't always ready for the spotlight. He's 28 years old now, the oldest American Olympic singles figure skating rookie since 1936.

In 2015, Rippon publicly came out after fighting with himself for years, not ready to believe he was gay. That many people assumed he was gay made him deny his identity even more. It wasn't until Rippon found himself off the ice that he found himself on it, blossoming into a true Olympic contender and now one of the buzziest names in Pyeongchang 2018.

"When everybody says things happen for a reason, I'm usually like, 'Shut the f--k up,' but I'm so glad things turned out the way they did because I wasn't ready for this experience when I was younger," Rippon said.

"I wouldn't have been really representing who I was. Going into this Games, I'm a confident 28-year-old man. I know who I am. I know who I'm representing and what I stand for. I think it's so easy to be my authentic self."

The results speak for themselves.

Rippon won gold at the 2016 U.S. Championships and qualified for the Grand Prix Final for the first time the next season. His growth as a performer since 2016 led him to Team USA, despite placing fourth at nationals.

In a sport that has become more mechanical in recent years, with more skaters trying to accumulate the most points possible, Rippon separates himself through his on-ice persona, his every twist, turn and stop an opportunity to showcase his firecracker of a personality, fueled by a conviction he lacked not too many years ago.

Rippon skates without inhibition. Every stride feels confident now, something one of his coaches, Derrick Leong-Delmore, said is a development since Rippon came out. He's not trying to hide himself anymore, and the critics have noticed.

Adam Rippon has channeled his emotions into his skating over the last few years, which helped him take gold at the U.S. Championships in 2016.
Adam Rippon has channeled his emotions into his skating over the last few years, which helped him take gold at the U.S. Championships in 2016.Jim Mone/Associated Press/Associated Press

"Adam, when he finally became comfortable with himself and became comfortable enough to admit things to himself that he wasn't before, it definitely helped him on the ice," said NBC skating commentator and former Olympian Johnny Weir. "He's free. He's more at liberty with his artistry. I think freedom is the most important thing that I've seen."

The freedom has translated off the ice, too, where Rippon has spoken openly about what's on his mind. He criticized the White House's selection of Vice President Mike Pence to lead the 2018 U.S. Olympic delegation, citing Pence's funding of gay conversion therapy (a charge Pence's spokespeople have denied).

His colorful Twitter feed includes musings such as, "I was recently asked in an interview what it's like to be a gay athlete in sports. I said it's exactly like being a straight athlete. Lots of hard work but usually done with better eyebrows."

In a sport where skaters don't publicly come out until after their careers due to international cultural stigmas in the sport, Rippon has embraced his identity.

"I know what it's like not to have anybody to look up to, especially when you're from a small town in Pennsylvania," Rippon said. "If I had the chance, I wanted to share my story. [Being gay] is not what defines me, but it's a part of who I am. It doesn't define, and that's what makes it easy for me to be myself, and I kinda rock."

Weir, who confirmed he was gay in a book after his skating career, said Rippon's journey is "inspiring" and that his desire to be vocal on LGBT issues has been a major positive.

"I am proud that the LGBT community has such a great representative in him and Gus Kenworthy," Weir said. "The attentioneveryone reacts to it in different ways, and it'll either help or hurt. Adam is such a diva, so I think it'll be helpful to him."

Leong-Delmore first met Rippon when Rippon was 15 years old, noticing him at a practice rink in Pennsylvania. He joined Rippon's team when Adam won the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in 2016. Now, 13 years after first meeting Rippon, Leong-Delmore speaks in awe of his skater's public and private transformation.

"The thing I tell everybody, whether it's other students or strangers that are talking to me about him, I think the thing is that the Adam you get at any point during the day is the Adam everybody gets," Leong-Delmore said.

"I don't think he has a persona for the media or the public that's different from who he is. He is his authentic self when he steps out of the house in the morning. You don't see that a lot with people in the public eye. That gives him accountability just to be true to himself on the ice in front of the judges."

Though claiming an individual medal in Pyeongchang may be difficult for Rippon, his willingness to speak out for the LGBT community has made him one of the Games' most compelling figures.
Though claiming an individual medal in Pyeongchang may be difficult for Rippon, his willingness to speak out for the LGBT community has made him one of the Games' most compelling figures.MLADEN ANTONOV/Getty Images

When that moment comes, Rippon faces a steep slope to medal in Pyeongchang. Weir said that the transformation Rippon has made over the last few years, however, certainly gives him a shot at reaching an Olympic podium. He's already off to a good start, racking up a strong score for the United States in the team free skate event, helping lock in a bronze medal for the United States.

"The freedom that he shows in his skating and his artistry and the ability to be himself make him a lot more interesting to watch than someone who is very nuts and bolts and somebody who is trying to rack up points," Weir said. "That's where he is strong.

"His deficiencies are on the technical side in comparison to the rest of the field. He's going to need two programs of his life to be in the mix. It's so exciting to be a part of the Olympic Games in a time where the public, the American public at large, is accepting of a skater like Adam Rippon."

When his moment in the Olympic spotlight eventually comes, Rippon said he will be ready to face the music. The public declaration of his sexuality has led to a transformation he hopes will help inspire others who may be experiencing a similar struggle to his younger self.

"That's why it's important to break the mold," Rippon said. "If I'm not able to be who I am, I have four minutes to show the judges who I am, and why I deserve to have a medal, why I deserve to have a huge score. If I can't be myself, I can't show them why I deserve that. That's why I always go out there and why I'm unabashedly me."

After all, finally being himself has already brought him this far.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the year when Leong-Delmore joined Rippon's coaching team.