Rippon had entered that free skate a clean performance away from his first Olympic Games, one year after breaking his foot, four years after nearly quitting figure skating altogether — and 82 years after the last American man his age made an Olympic skating debut.
Then he fell on his opening jump, turned two triples into singles and stood wide-eyed in the terrifying aftermath. After a decade spent on the painful Olympic periphery, his best chance seemed to disintegrate in 4½ disappointing minutes.
Then — with Wagner, his mother and others there for congratulations or consolation — came the text. The committee had voted 11-1 to place Rippon on the Olympic team instead of surprise silver medalist Ross Miner, who had a less impressive international track record. U.S. champion Nathan Chen and bronze medalist Vincent Zhou, the two most quad-laden Americans, were near-givens for the team. Rippon, one of the longest-standing remnants of a more artistic era, had not been.
"I'm really grateful that the selection committee looked at my body of work over the last two seasons," Rippon said. ". . . I feel that my experience will help me have my best performances at the Olympic Games, and it feels amazing to say that."
Rippon texted Miner when he heard who made the team, telling the 26-year-old he was proud of him. Miner admitted disappointment but shared congratulations for Rippon all the same. While the podium at nationals often begets the Olympic team, and did so on the women's side this year, Miner's stunning emergence seemed likely to change that precedent.
"Ross had an amazing, lights-out performance. He's a great example for our young skaters. He's been a tremendous athlete over the years," U.S. Figure Skating President Sam Auxier said. " . . . However, we had to look at the body of work. Ross does amazing at U.S. championships, but frankly he has struggled in international competition."
Chen, the 18-year-old who became U.S. champion with a score 40 points higher than the rest of the competition, was a no-doubt choice. With a five-quad program that is pushing the sport to literal new heights, Chen is the best American hope for a singles figure skating medal.
"It's been a dream of mine to be selected on the U.S. Olympic team as long as I can remember," Chen said. "The Olympics have really motivated me, ever since I started skating as a little kid."
Zhou, 17, is one of the only Americans capable of keeping up with Chen in the air, and he has loaded his programs with quads, too. Chen knew he would be on this Olympic team. After a strong free skate Saturday night, Zhou had a good sense that he would make that team, too.
"There's a certain feeling that comes with the word Olympian, and it's really hard to describe," said Zhou, a Palo Alto, Calif., native who had a cheering section hundreds deep at the free skate. "To have that attached to my name, it's more than I could ever ask for in my entire life."
But Rippon's journey to this point is the most poignant of the three, one riddled with disappointment and frustration that nevertheless led him to the Olympics eventually. While all three men will be Olympic rookies, Rippon — the oldest of six children — is a decade older than both of his teammates.
"I'm so excited that my two sons are doing so well. I'm honored to be their father," Rippon joked. ". . . I always sort of feel like a leader or a big brother. I want the best for the both of them as we head into this Olympic Games."
Rippon will not be the oldest skater representing the United States in PyeongChang. That will be 30-year-old Christopher Knierim, part of the husband and wife pairs team with his spouse, Alexa, that won the national championship Saturday. The United States has not medaled in pairs since 1988, and earned just one pairs bid to South Korea. The Knierims, with a vaunted quad twist in their arsenal, were heavy favorites to earn the spot despite a shaky free skate Saturday. But that they would be in Korea was hardly a given.
Last year, Alexa Scimeca-Knierim battled a stomach virus that dropped her under 100 pounds and required abdominal surgeries. The duo had to petition for bids to competition this season. A year later, they are national champions and Olympians.
They will join Rippon, Zhou and Chen, as well as women's singles skaters Bradie Tennell, Mirai Nagasu and Karen Chen in PyeongChang. Three ice dancing teams — Maia and Alex Shibutani, Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, and Madison Chock and Evan Bates — were also named to the U.S. team Sunday night.
The three ice dancing teams have separated themselves from the rest of the American competition over the last season or so, and they made the podium this week.
The reigning U.S. champion Shibutanis entered this week as the favorites but skated imperfectly, missing a few levels on their step sequences that left a crack for the other two teams to steal the title.
Hubbell and Donohue finished third at these championships four years in a row, prompting Donohue to joke before the competition that he simply couldn't bring himself to put a bronze medal around his neck again. This time, they took the title, edging the Shibutanis by less than a full point with a sultry free dance.
Chock and Bates also shone with an ethereal skate to John Lennon's "Imagine," a sharp, emotional performance that amounted to one of their best of the season. They finished three-tenths of a point behind the Shibutanis, five-tenths of a point out of first place — an indication of how close these three teams are entering the Olympic Games.
Rachel and Michael Parsons, who train in Wheaton, Md., finished fifth. Their training partners in Wheaton, Lorraine McNamara and Quinn Carpenter, finished sixth. Both teams have established themselves as Olympic prospects for 2022.