"Every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings." At 1 AM on Sunday, January 7, the bell came in the form of a buzzing smartphone, and the angel was figure skater Adam Rippon.
“Congratulations,” the text read. “You’ve been named to the 2018 U.S. Olympic team.”
Rippon had been waiting for word while sitting in his hotel room in San Jose, CA—as he put it, “sweating bullets”—with his mother Kelly, one of his coaches, and his friend and fellow skater Ashley Wagner. After reading the message, he broke into tears, an outpouring of emotion that was equal parts joy and relief. Despite a seemingly bottomless reservoir of talent—and an outsized, people-loving, media-friendly personality—Rippon’s ride to the Winter Games has been anything but smooth.
“Setbacks?” he said with characteristic sassiness. “Oh, baby, I’ve had them.”
Rippon just missed out on the Olympics in 2010. And again in 2014. He was so disappointed, he was ready to walk away from the sport altogether. He watched friends go off to Sochi and felt like a failure. After taking a break, he started skating again a little at a time. Eventually, he fell in love with the sport all over again.
At the Nationals in San Jose, he was nearly flawless in the short program— pure Rippon, twirling, smiling, beaming, even motioning to the judges with a finger in the air, as if to say, ‘Wait ‘til you see what’s next.’ But two nights later, in the free program, he fell on a quadruple Lutz, then turned two triple jumps into singles—and dropped to fourth place overall.
Figure skating legend and 1988 Olympic champion Brian Boitano knows how lonely the ice can feel on nights like those. “You don’t have a teammate to rely on,” he said by phone from Northern California. “You fall and you smile, when in your mind you’re thinking, ‘I fucking can’t believe I just fell.’ You’re trying to make it look fun and easy. It’s incredibly hard on every level.”
Rippon’s long program is one reason he had been so nervous waiting for the text. Was he going to miss out again? At 28 years old, would this be his last chance to become an Olympian? His concerns were moot. In the end, the committee considered Rippon’s body of work over the previous two seasons and placed him on the three-man team.
Rippon’s most impressive milestone—one that speaks to his endurance, dedication, and athleticism—is that he is the oldest American figure skating rookie in the Olympics since 1936. (His teammates are Nathan Chen, 18, and Vincent Zhou, 17.) But the media has largely ignored that feat, choosing instead to zoom in on another of Rippon’s firsts: becoming the first out gay man to represent the USA in the Winter Olympics. (Gus Kenworthy, an openly gay freestyle skier, is hoping to qualify.)
Rippon, the eldest of six siblings, grew up in Clarks Summit, PA. The town boasts a population of less than 6,000, and according to Rippon, wasn’t an easy place to be different. The kids pelted him with the typical insensitive slurs—sissy, fairy, faggot—and, like most schoolyard bullies, assumed he was weak. He put his anger into his skates and proved the naysayers wrong by advancing through the ranks, winning back-to-back junior world titles in 2008 and 2009.
He came out to the public in SKATING magazine shortly after the Sochi Olympics, which had spurred a number of athletes to protest Russia’s disgraceful record on LGBTQ rights. In the magazine, Rippon explained his reasons for coming out. “I want to be a relatable example,” he said. “And I want to say something to the dad out there who might be concerned that his son is a figure skater. I mean, look at me; I’m just a normal son from small-town Pennsylvania. Nothing changed.”
“In this day and age, it’s so important to share who you are because I know when I was young, I didn’t have a lot of role models,” Rippon told VICE Sports via phone from his home in Los Angeles. “People talked about gay people saying they were disgusting. You grow up with that and you feel that you’re less-than because of who you are.”
Like many gay athletes, Rippon says that coming out made him a better and less distracted competitor. And when Rippon says it, the words flow loosely, freely, and openly.
“When I was younger,” he said, “I really didn’t know who I was, and I was trying to present myself in a way that I thought was how the judges wanted me to be. I kind of felt stuck. I didn’t feel authentic. When I came out, my skating career really took off because I put my whole self out there. And when I started doing that, I got so much better. So, so much better.”
Boitano isn’t surprised. “When you get to the level that Adam is at, you’re just so targeted. You’re thinking about the skating every day, and thinking about what’s going to make you stronger mentally and physically. All the other stuff is just sinew on the outside. If he can be even more targeted at the task at hand, that’s going to make him stronger.”
Rippon is, by all measures, a different skater. His costumes are flashier (mesh and sequins), his hairstyle is more brazen (it was dyed lavender, for a while), and he skates to music with lyrics.
Tara Lipinski, the former world champion and 1998 Olympic gold medalist, will be in PyeongChang covering skating as an analyst for NBC. “Adam isn’t afraid to have some fun, or step beyond what most skaters will say or do in this sport," she told VICE Sports via email. "I love that he is always true to himself, and being a little sassy is a part of Adam. Skating needs some sass sometimes.”
If you haven’t seen him on the ice, here are a few recent tweets to give you a sense of his unbridled spirit.
(Look up “jush,” if you must.)
But Rippon wouldn’t be Rippon if the ice were smooth. Even after coming out—and winning his first U.S. men’s senior national title—he has had his challenges. Last January, he broke his foot and missed out on defending his title. This time, though, he had no thoughts of quitting. If anything, he was itching to get back on the ice.
“After I broke my foot, I went to Colorado Springs for rehab,” he said. “There was a countdown clock to the 2018 Olympic Games, and I was sitting on a therapy table with one foot on the ground and the other in this giant, ugly, plaster cast, and I saw the clock was at 365 days. I said, ‘I have one year to get myself together for these Olympics, and I know I can do it.’ I just had a better perspective. And I just never lost that focus. And to have actually done it and made the team, it’s just so incredible.”
After all he’s been through, Rippon laughs at the remarks that bothered him back at Clarks Summit. He’s tough. He’s masculine. And he’s man enough to succeed at an elite level.
“I’m 28,” Rippon said, “And I’m going to my first Olympic Games. If that doesn’t show you some perseverance, I don’t know what the hell will.”
Lipinski expects that Rippon’s performances will be crowd pleasers in PyeongChang. “His short program brings out his fun personality, which will get the arena pumped up. His free skate is emotional, you can tell he feels every note of the music, which translates really well to the audience and judges.”
Boitano said he’s pulling for Rippon—and predicts he’ll do well if he has the same kind of focus he had at the Nationals. “In my opinion, he’s in his prime,” he said. “He’s in great shape. I was watching the monitor [in San Jose] and his face came on the big screen, and I just saw this focus. I looked in his eyes and I thought, ‘He’s on.’ He didn’t even have to take a step. I said ‘This guy’s gonna be good tonight.’”
Lipinski says Rippon is nothing if not confident. “He is talking the talk, and has also been walking the walk this year. I’m glad Adam feels like he's found that secret recipe of confidence and belief in his skating. It’s something every skater searches for.”
This story has been updated to include quotes from Tara Lipinski.